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Coal-Fired Plants Obscuring National Park Vistas


Air quality problems that already exist at Shenandoah National Park are pretty obvious in this set of photos. Photos courtesy of Air Resource Specialists, Inc.

On a clear day, you often can see for miles and miles. But as a report from the National Parks Conservation Association points out, clear days are harder and harder to find in our national parks under the Bush administration's relatively laissez-faire approach to coal-fired power plants.

Views at Great Smoky Mountains, Mesa Verde, Badlands, Shenandoah, Zion and five other national parks are particularly poor and yet the administration is working to further weaken clean-air regulations, according to the park advocacy group.

“Americans expect and deserve clean air when they visit our national parks,” says NPCA Clean Air and Climate Programs Director Mark Wenzler. “Instead of opening the door to more pollution in national parks such as Shenandoah, Great Basin, and Zion, the administration should be working to secure a legacy that preserves America’s national treasures for our children and grandchildren.”

The 33-page Dark Horizons report paints a sobering portrait of national park vistas.

Already, one in three national park sites has air pollution levels that exceed health standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Most of the air pollution now marring the parks’ scenic views, harming plants, and risking the health of wildlife and visitors, results from the burning of fossil fuels, especially by coal-fired power plants. Worse yet, more than 100 new coal-fired power plants are in various stages of planning and development across the country, putting national parks at risk.


Is the irony lost on the administration? Through the Interior Department it touts the National Park Service's centennial in 2016 and says it is working to put an extra sheen on the park system. At the same time, the EPA is working to relax air-quality regulations that apply to coal-fired plants, according to the NPCA.

While more than just ten national parks struggle with air quality (views from atop Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park often are obscured by smog and haze rising up from the San Joaquin Valley, Acadia National Park at times struggles with high ozone levels, as does Cape Cod National Seashore), the NPCA report focuses on those parks most threatened by new coal-fired power plants.

The ten, in no particular order, are Mesa Verde, Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, Wind Cave, Zion, Great Basin, Theodore Roosevelt, Mammoth Cave, Badlands, and Capitol Reef. According to NPCA, there are 28 coal-fired power plants proposed to be built within the airsheds of these ten.

The ramifications of doing nothing are great and extensive. Trees and plants could struggle to survive. Fish in backcountry lakes could become so contaminated with mercury that it'd be a health hazard for you to eat them. As things are, the Park Service already puts out health advisories in some parks when ozone levels climb alarmingly high.

... the administration is responding to this growing threat to park air quality by seeking to
undermine the very laws that protect park air quality, charges the NPCA. The EPA has proposed regulatory changes that will make it easier to build new coal-fired power plants close to the national parks. The National Park Service has said that one of the changes sought by EPA “provides the lowest possible degree of protection” of air pollution limits designed to protect park air quality. The administration is now finalizing these changes in spite of the unanimous opposition of EPA’s own regional offices, strong objections by the National Park Service, and an active congressional investigation.


For details on these threats, and detailed maps that pinpoint the problem areas across the National Park System, check out NPCA's report.


We get some of the blue haze in the distance when we look several ridges over up here in East Kentucky. Visibility is not our problem, what you see sometimes is disturbing to view. Mountain Top Removal is destroying our beautiful portion of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. I hope the new administration addresses the problems with the particulate matter produced by coal fired power generation that is spoiling nature in the Great Smoky Mountains. It is my sincere hope that acid rain does not effect the deciduous forest of that beautiful place.

It is your good fortune that coal was not found early in the last century in these mountains, I am sure because of the protection you fall under this terrible environmental scourge could not be done down there. I do not understand how the nation allows the mountain top removal process for our mountains. We don’t have National Park Status but belong as much to the nation as the Great Smoky Mountains do.

Please protect the natural beauty and the wildness or this place for as long as you can, it will soon be the only place the people of East Ky., or W.Va., will be able to view an unbroken mountain vista.

What will economics matter when there is no clean air to breathe, no drinking water left, no arable land? Do the oceans need to rise over your head, tornadoes need to rip your house down before you'll realize that money won't matter if the planet's ecosystems are destroyed - unless your credible economists can devise a plan to launch us all into space to inhabit another habitable planet, then I'd say you and the rest of us have 2 choices - start the rapid demise of humanity (die) or start building solar and wind power energy systems. Not some token attempt - now is the time - it is humanity's last chance. When nature's tipping point is reached within the next 5 years, our typical American tombstone mentality will not be able to fix the effects. Enough sunlight falls on the surface of the earth to power every energy-grabbing device known - why won't we take advantage of it? Because the oil, coal, and nuke barons (BigEnergy) want to revel in their shortsighted and shortlived excess. Most of them won't be alive when Nature takes her wrath on us. Hope their kids have an accurate starchart - there's another habitable planet close by, right? In 10 years, the US could instead be the world leader in solar, wind, and tidal power production - the systems and technology exported all over the world, millions of jobs formed by private enterprise and government incentives, lots of money to be made. There's economics for you. There, and nowhere else, is hope.

Lone Hiker:Good input and I find your arguments most informative. Although, I don't have your expertise in the field or specialty (was it physics?) in some aspect of hard science but I do remember the scientific community complaining back in the 1980's how difficult it was to drum up money for research and development towards alternative energy projects. I agree our past history doesn't reflect well on are gluttonous appetite for more coal, gas and oil. But, I can remember Dr. Jensen's work (1970's) at NASA in atmospheric research pointing up to the sky that we're slowly burning things up; then Al Gore puts an exclamation point on his work with his profound book- An Inconvenient Truth.

There have been red flags dropped for decades regarding our ill-behaved consumptive attitude towards "more is good" capitalist theme. Instead, some get mocked at for thinking "small is beautiful" and that it's a bad virtue to do so. I do point the finger very heavily at the Bush & Cheney administration for foot-dragging, especially when the world awaits for our critical input to help resolve one of the most potent crises of warming! Looks like we went for the easy fix or the band-aid approach for years and now it's pay back time. We wait until the last drop (and price) of oil is right, or the Arctic Wilderness is totally exploited, the National Parks lined with utility companies (and the smoke haze that blocks our view) then we knee jerk and act. Hopefully, young Chance F.'s generation doesn't have to build us 25-foot seawalls to keep the ice caps from flooding our U.S. coastline. I guess we are "simply children" after all Lone Hiker, spoon-fed and pampered till the grave and smothered to death by Big Oil.

I'm really getting tired of Liberals blaming the current doofus administration for all of the nation's energy woes when all past administrations dating back to the 50's are just a culpable, and when the real evidence suggests that this lame-brained nation has been comfortable and content with utilization of oil for decades. Dating back to the energy crisis that was the mid-70's, the national response was automobile fuel economy suggestions rather than alternative energy, our first mistake. Additionally, utility charters that guarantee profits structured as incentives for consumer investing in utility stock as a means of supporting the economy is the second fallacy. The lack of incentives, or mandates for utilities to progress beyond 19th Century technology is by far a larger contributor to our current situation than political "lame duck excuses". Our National Experimental Energy Laboratory has for years not only sought but delivered viable solutions to increased efficiency in solar and geothermal energy; reference the "3 month" Mars landers that with nothing to supplement their solar batteries have been fully functional for almost 3 years. Solar nay-sayers are quick to point out the inefficient methods of "bringing the power to the grid", which by the way was never the intention of solar energy sources, so of course at this moment, they claim victory over such alternatives and continue to tout the benefits of coal and oil. As I said, 19th Century Neanderthals. The truth is that the original design of solar cells was based around capture of a single high-energy wavelength of light, ignoring the fact that the spectra surrounding this wavelength were fully capable of yielding a highly efficient energy source as well. By placing additional layers of reactive materials in conjunction with the current film, solar cells have a greater potential than we ever dreamed possible with our initial research. True, this increases the cost of the panels, by not exponentially, as our current special interest groups inaccurately claim. Leaving our doors open to the spiral that is OPEC and complaining that you can't meet clean air standard set decades ago simply because "it's too expensive" is your idea of environmentally responsible and cost-effective management of our power grid? Gimme a break........

The only hard evidence is that no single solution, INCLUDING additional coal-fired generation, is the sole answer to our current energy situation. But just when does the energy lobby feel the "time is right" to institute supplemental and eventual replacement of the power sources? That answer simply children, is when they have cornered the market and can maintain total control of our checkbooks. I suggest not only replacing the power source to the grid, but those who are responsible as well. They are the ones who have actually proven their incompetence and inefficiency by continually working with the pols to block changes to our system before the initial research can be funded and completed.

Unfortunately, not all coal-fired power plants emit nothing more than water vapor and CO2. Among the contaminants still released by many are mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides, not too mention particulate matter.

While there are efforts under way to develop better emissions control systems, and cleaner power plants overall, we're not there yet. That's why current negotiations on climate change legislation involve "cap and trade" proposals.

That said, there is no silver bullet in our energy future. Renewables -- solar, wind, geothermal, biomass -- are promising, but by themselves cannot meet our energy needs in a cost-effective manner under current technologies. Coal, because of its plentiful resources, will continue to be a player. Hopefully, clean coal technologies will enable that energy sector to contribute in both a cost-effective and low impact manner. Easing air quality standards, however, is not a reasonable or forward-thinking solution.

For years we have had some of the greatest minds exploring all avenues of green energy and alternative energy resources outside of Big Coal and Big Oil. It's a known fact, the government (especially with this present administration) has not injected much needed money into these programs or projects for research and development...just on a small token bases. With the Bush & Cheney regime, they have deliberately forestalled any such programs to miniscule level of less importance. Since the Bush & Cheney administration stepped into public office from day one, it's been all about Big Oil and Big Coal (plus the lucrative offers to major utility companies). All major campaign contributors to there corrupt shenanigans. It's understandable why Bush & Cheney sat for years doing nothing about global warming and just padding us with lame duck excuses that we needed more research. Anonymous, most of the "smoke" appears to be coming from Bush's mouth while running out the clock and really to do nothing about global warming...but sit.

The "smoke" you see emanating from the stacks of coal fired power plants is carbon dioxide and water vapor. NOx, SUx, and particulate is eliminated by equipment specifically designed to do so, and these hazards are NOT released into the atmosphere. Go to the plants....ask for the data. They have to keep it public record, and the record originates from a 3rd party testing company. Until the government puts regulations on CO2 and water drying, most plants won't comply unless required. The cost is great. Electricity, if you haven't noticed, is expensive enough.

Green groups don't understand or are unwilling to understand the economics. Their message gets to the media first, because industry can't afford to support a full time public relations blitz.

In addition, the "truth" is that all the renewable energy we could utilize today is not economically viable. Hopefully, in the future we can rely on this energy when the technology and the economy can produce the power this country requires. Until then, we will have to rely on the dirty beast that is coal fired power.

This isn't just about the NPS and NPCA not wanting to be impacted by coal burning power plants -- it's the law. The 1977 Clean Air Act requires that all national parks larger than 6000 acres that existed when the law was passed have the highest degree of protection from air pollution impacts of any lands in the US. It's called "Prevention of Significant Deterioration" and the Federal Land Manager (the Secretary of the Interior, and through him/her, the Director of the NPS) has an "affirmative responsibility" to protect the air quality related values of these parks. Unfortunately, it's always been a political football and a hollow protection since regulation and enforcement depends upon EPA and the states to act.

J Longstreet
a national park superintendent

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