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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.


Of course, the problem with NPCA's report is this - is it possible to build a coal-fired power plant in the United States that is *not* within the viewshed of one of the 391 National Parks? Maybe you could put a coal-fired power plant in north-central Texas that wouldn't impact the viewshed of a National Park, but I'm not even sure about that. In other words, coal-fired power plants aren't a National Parks issue - they're a general environmental issue. Given the threat of global warming, its probably time to start arguing that despite the hazardous waste, the unsightly steam plumes, the small risk of unspeakable disaster, and the much higher total cost that we should start converting all of the Nation's electrical power supply from coal power to nuclear power. Still, at the very least, its a matter of trade-offs of the negative impacts of coal vs. natural gas vs. nuclear electrical power for a country with a growing population and a growing economy. Unfortunately, the NPCA rather inaccurately claims that solar, wind, and geothermal energy, combined with increased conservation, could meet the Nation's energy demands. I can't recall ever seeing that conclusion supported by credible scientists and economists.

North Texas has Lake Meredith NRA and Alibates Flint Quarries NM. But maybe better filter systems might help? The Germans use amazing electric particle filters on their plants and use the cooling water to "wash" the exhaust fumes additionally. I'm not really sure, if the US standard is as high as theirs.

OK, so I could go on a massive anti-coal rant the points out the many ills of said nasty, foul energy, and the merits and truth behind how we can power America on renewable energy, but I won't.

No, I'll keep my mouth shut (mostly) and be brief...

Coal plants in many parts of the nation get their coal from companies who blow up mountains, shove the unwanted rock into headwater streams, and then cart off the coal. As a resident of a state that is impacted by mountaintop removal (aka raping the land), I can tell you that contrary to what the ads running on CNN say, coal is worse than foreign oil. At least the terrorists who sell us oil aren't killing people in America (Bush's Iraq mess notwithstanding), destroying homes, burying rivers' headwaters, causing cronic disease (asthma, autism, etc), mercury poisoning, etc on a DAILY basis.

You can see where your electricity comes from, and if it's powered by said nasty, destructive companies at

For more about coal, head to

And to learn about how we can stop/greatly slow climate change, see

I applaud NPCA for continuing to hammer this message home (they ran a similar campaign last spring). I'm sick of seeing air pollution advisory signs as I drive into GRSM, and I'm sick of breathing foul air that literally makes me sick.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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