E.P.A Proposes New Rules on Haze

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The Environmental Protection Agency announces a new policy to reduce haze. Some critics say the plan falls short of what the EPA proposed just a year ago, particularly regarding emissions from coal-fired power plants.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

On many summer days, haze shrouds the scenery in national parks from Yosemite to the Great Smoky Mountains. The Environment Protection Agency today announces a new policy to tackle the problem. Some critics say it falls short, even of the EPA's own target, as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

It's not disputed: the rule will make the air over national parks clearer, but an environmental lawyer says it doesn't crack down on big polluters as much as the EPA said it would when it proposed the regulation just a year ago. Vickie Patton of Environmental Defense got an early look at the EPA's final plan and did some calculations.

Ms. VICKIE PATTON (Environmental Defense): EPA has, in a number of instances, taken a step back from its proposal and instead will allow some of these high-polluting, older coal plants to continue to discharge smog-forming and haze-forming pollution at a level that doesn't really reflect what today's modern pollution control technology can, in fact, achieve.

SHOGREN: Jeff Holmstead, who heads EPA's air programs, disagrees.

Mr. JEFF HOLMSTEAD (EPA): We've improved the final rule so that it will get better emission reductions than we would have achieved under the proposal.

SHOGREN: Patton's concerned about the way the EPA rule regulates emissions of nitrogen oxides from older, coal-fired power plants. Nitrogen oxides contribute to haze and form small particles that make people sick and even kill them. The proposal set one target for reducing nitrogen oxides from all power plants. The final rule sets a variety of targets depending on the type of plant and the type of coal it burns. Vickie Patton said that's bad news for national parks like the ones in the Four Corners area, where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico come together.

Ms. PATTON: It has a cluster of what we in the West proudly refer to as the golden circle of national parks and wilderness areas; includes places like the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, Bryce, Capitol Reef, the Petrified National Forest.

SHOGREN: There also are some big coal-fired power plants there.

Ms. PATTON: The Four Corners Power Plant and the Navajo Generating Station collectively discharge some 77,000 tons of smog and haze-forming oxides of nitrogen each year, and that is comparable to the amount of pollution that would be discharged from some 80 million motor vehicles.

SHOGREN: Patton says under the proposal, these plants would have to have made deep cuts in their nitrogen oxide pollution.

Ms. PATTON: In both cases, under the final rule, the reductions that EPA is going to recommend for those facilities will be half of what EPA proposed.

SHOGREN: EPA's Jeff Holmstead said the changes reflect the fact that not all plants could meet the EPA's proposed target using the pollution control technology the EPA requires.

Mr. HOLMSTEAD: What we learned during the course of the rule making is that for some types of plants, they can do better than that, but other types of plants can't do that well.

SHOGREN: Holmstead says even under the earlier proposal, those plants wouldn't have been required to meet the tougher standard. An industry lobbyist, who wouldn't speak on the record before the rule was released, confirmed that EPA's changes reflect industry's concerns that the proposal was too stringent for some power plants. Patrick Cummins directs the Western Regional Air Partnership. It's an alliance of state governments that works on cleaning air pollution. He says the EPA's proposal was a one-size-fits-all strategy that wouldn't have worked. He says the states can be trusted to demand rigorous cleanups.

Mr. PATRICK CUMMINS (Western Regional Air Partnership): The states in the West, in particular, have demonstrated their commitment to improving air quality over our national parks and wilderness areas. I think we've got a track record of demonstrating our ability to do that very successfully and to do something that makes sense for our region.

SHOGREN: EPA says the reductions in haze from the rule will be noticeable, but there's no talk about meeting Congress' mandate to restore pristine air over national parks. That will take many decades. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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