Struggling to see the the iconic stair-step progression of mountains, struggling to catch your breath while hiking, or even struggling to catch a fish in Great Smoky Mountains National Park could someday soon be overcome thanks to an agreement to shut down coal-fired power plants in the region.
True, being out of shape could be the cause of your struggles on the park's trails. But air pollution from the power plants not only obscures the views from atop Clingsmans Dome, but also can increase ground-level ozone levels in the park that can make it more difficult to breath. Too, that pollution can lead to acid rain, which is deadly for the park's trout streams.
Park officials point to their pollution problems on their website:
Air pollution is shrinking scenic views, damaging plants, and degrading high elevation streams and soils in the Great Smoky Mountains. Even human health is at risk. Most pollution originates outside the park and is created by power plants, industry, and automobiles.
Wind currents moving toward the southern Appalachians transport pollutants from urban areas, industrial sites, and power plants located both near and far. The height and physical structure of the mountains, combined with predominant weather patterns, tend to trap and concentrate human-made pollutants in and around the national park.
Views from scenic overlooks at Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been seriously degraded over the last 50 years by human-made pollution. Since 1948, based on regional airport records, average visibility in the southern Appalachians has decreased 40% in winter and 80 percent in summer.
A big step towards resolving some of the problems was made Thursday, when the Tennessee Valley Authority's board of directors signed off on an agreement that will lead to the phaseout of 18 of its coal-fired power plant units. Additionally, the TVA officials agreed to install modern pollution controls at another 36 units. And they agreed to help both the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service restore and improve "lands, watersheds and forests."
The agreement, made with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, four states, and three citizen groups, is being described as "one of the largest pollution reduction agreements in the nation's history," one that represents the largest reduction ever in air pollution in the Southeast, according to the National Parks Conservation Association.
Among the pollutants that should be greatly diminished by the agreement are sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, and carbon. According to TVA officials, the move will help the authority "reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, a component of acid rain, by 97 percent from 1977 levels, and help reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, which contribute to smog, by 95 percent from 1995 levels. Previous TVA pollution-control programs already have reduced sulfur dioxide emissions by more than 90 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions by 86 percent."
The settlement agreement requires TVA to reduce pollution at its 59 coal-fired power generating units, phasing out 18 of those units no later than 2018. Ten units at TVA’s Johnsonville Plant in middle Tennessee are to be taken offline, along with two units at the John Sevier Fossil Plant in eastern Tennessee and six units at the Widows Creek Fossil Plant in northern Alabama.
The John Sevier Fossil Plant and Widows Creek Fossil Plant are some of the oldest units in the TVA system, dating back to the early 1950s, and have never been upgraded with modern pollution controls, an NPCA release said.
"For decades, the Smoky Mountains has suffered from a slow motion crisis," said Don Barger, senior regional director for the NPCA. "Air pollution from TVA’s coal-fired power plants has degraded scenic vistas, damaged plant species, and impaired human health. Today’s settlement halts that trend and sends us in the right direction."
The settlement, approved in conjunction with TVA charting a new course as laid out in its 10-year Integrated Resource Plan, represents a welcome change in focus for the federally owned utility, the NPCA said. Under the agreement, TVA will modernize its aging infrastructure, invest in clean energy and slash its pollution.
The resource plan proposes a "strategic direction focusing on a diverse mix of electricity generation sources, including nuclear power, renewable energy, natural gas and energy efficiency, as well as traditional coal and hydroelectric power," a TVA release said.
“Diversity proved to be the most prudent course in meeting future energy needs in all the various future scenarios we studied,” TVA CEO Tom Kilgore said. “A variety of electricity sources, rather than heavy reliance on any single source, reduces long-term risks and helps keep costs steady and predictable.”
Under the agreement, TVA will invest $350 million in the four states of Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee on additional air pollution-reduction projects over the next five years, including funds to help consumers and business cut their energy bills, support local businesses that are creating jobs in local clean energy projects and cut carbon pollution.
"There is a demonstrated link between pollution and asthma in children," said Tiffany Schauer, Executive Director of Our Children's Earth Foundation. "Thanks to today's action, every family in Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina and Tennessee can breathe a little easier."
The agreement resolves a series of legal challenges against TVA brought by the environmental groups and the four states. The legal actions stemmed from allegations that TVA had unlawfully extended the life of its coal plants without installing modern pollution controls, otherwise known as the New Source Review program.
"Today's landmark agreement is a game changer for how we power our homes and businesses in the Southeast," said Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "By phasing out the most dangerous coal plants and charting a course focused on less pollution and more clean energy, TVA is demonstrating that we don’t have to choose between clean air and affordable energy – we can and must have both."