NOTE: This is a guest post by Stephanie Kodish, Clean Air Counsel at the National Parks Conservation Association.
On December 23rd, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) quietly gave an early Christmas present to operators of some of the oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the eastern U.S. That’s when the EPA issued a proposal that would exempt these plants from installing modern pollution controls deemed necessary to protect the air quality in some of America’s most beloved national parks and wilderness areas.
35 years ago — in the 1977 Clean Air Act — Congress mandated that these outdated coal plants clean up their pollution to protect places like the Great Smoky Mountains, Voyageurs, Everglades and Acadia national parks from air pollution. The EPA ignored this mandate for decades, until finally forced by public pressure and litigation to enforce the law.
Air pollution continues to be one of the most widespread and severe problems within the national park system, while climate change, fueled by growing emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, has become “the greatest threat the National Park System has ever faced,” according the National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. Coal-fired power plants are the largest sources of air and climate pollution impacting the national parks.
The Obama Administration came into office promising to end the previous administration’s persistent attempts to delay and undermine enforcement of the Clean Air Act. And in many respects, the Obama EPA has made progress – moving forward with new regulations to limit mercury and other toxic pollutants, nitrogen and sulfur pollution in the eastern U.S., and greenhouse gas emissions. But the job is far from over. Hundreds of antiquated coal-fired power plants – 30, 40, 50 years old – continue to spew millions of tons of pollution into our atmosphere.
The Obama EPA is moving forward with work to clean up coal-fired power plants polluting national parks in the West – a big step toward addressing the shameful 35-plus year delay in enforcing the Clean Air Act. But now, on the eve of eastern coal plants finally being forced to clean up their act, EPA wants to give many of them a reprieve from pollution controls, proposing that a regional pollution trading program, that in some cases will mean little or no actual cleanup, should be allowed to replace concrete, plant specific pollution reductions.
The EPA’s proposed Best Available Retrofit Technology rule exemption would allow at least 150 coal plants in the eastern half of the country to avoid installing the most effective pollution controls, controls that are necessary for achieving low emission rates routinely required at coal plants nationwide. Modern pollution controls should have been installed on these plants decades ago. It’s time to finally get the job done.
EPA must drop its proposal in order to guarantee that these plants are fully cleaned up for the benefit of our parks, our health and the economic vitality of communities that depend on tourism and recreation.
Photos Courtesy of the National Parks Conservation Association