The EPA’s newest ozone pollution threshold has placed 26 national parks – including such gems as Sequoia and Rocky Mountain – at non-compliant levels, while the rest of the nation’s communities must spend billions conforming to the new normal.
The National Park Service blames power plants for much of the problem, and not wildfires that have blanketed the West or tourism bringing in $15.7 billion per year. But if you ask scientists and officials from California where cars rule supreme, power plants aren’t the issue.
Either way, it’s the states’ problem to figure this out, the National Park Service says. The federal government can’t fine itself, as shown with the disastrous Animas River spill in August.
“States are responsible for implementing the provisions of the Clean Air Act,” said Jeffrey Olson, chief of education and outreach at the National Park Service. “They will eventually have to put plans in place to show how they can come into compliance with violations of the ozone standard.”
On Oct. 1, the ozone pollution standard was lowered from 75 to 70, thrusting 241 counties nationwide onto the non-compliance list. The last time the standard changed was 2008, and 227 counties were not meeting the old threshold. The EPA estimates that compliance with the new standard will cost $1.4 billion annually.
But national parks are among the worst offenders, with one maintaining levels of more than 100 ppb.
The biggest violator is Dinosaur National Monument, home to 1,500 dinosaur fossils and a popular white-water rafting destination on the Colorado-Utah border. Its ozone level is 114 ppb. The runner-up at 90 ppb is the 631-square-mile Sequoia National Park in Northern California, a pristine forest boasting 3,200-year-old trees that are among the tallest in the world.
The Grand Canyon? It barely squeaks by at 69 ppb.
In all, 11 states have national parks that are in non-compliance with the new ozone standard: Arizona, 3; California, 9; Colorado, 2; Connecticut, 3; Illinois, 1; Maine, 1; Massachusetts, 1; Nevada, 1; New Jersey, 2; Pennsylvania, 1; and Utah, 2. Ozone levels are calculated over a three-year period.
“Many issues can contribute to this, especially wildfires,” said Mark Z. Jacobson, an atmospheric scientist at Stanford University.
Critics say that billions in product losses and compliance costs could make this the costliest regulation in history.
“The costs of compliance with this regulation would largely be borne by manufacturers, and the EPA can only identify a little more than a third of the controls we would need to install to comply. It calls the rest ‘unknown controls,’ because it simply cannot tell us what we will have to do,” said Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers. “This regulation’s strict mandates will force manufacturers to shut down, scrap or modify existing facilities. This means higher costs for consumers and lost jobs.”
The EPA had considered taking the level as low as 60 ppb before settling on 70.
“You are going to hear horror stories by the EPA that people can’t breathe and that’s why they have these standards,” said Daren Bakst, a research fellow on agricultural policy with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. “A lot of misleading information is out there and one of the myths is poor air quality. It’s actually getting better and is so much cleaner than the 1970s.”
If you ask the EPA, it’s all about public health.
“Put simply – ozone pollution means it hurts to breathe for those most vulnerable: our kids, our elderly and those suffering from heart and lung ailments,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a press release. “Our job is to set science-backed standards that protect the health of the American people.
POLLUTED NATIONAL PARKS
So what is to blame for the pollution at national parks spread from coast to coast? It depends on whom you ask.
“Much of the pollution is from vehicles, but it also depends on the location of the park,” said Dave Clegern, spokesperson for the California Air Resources Board. “Some of the recent pollution has been from wildfires, some drifts in from out of state.”
The National Park Service says it’s the power plants.
“I’m not talking about car or truck traffic but pollutants that are transported by prevailing winds,” Olson said. “For example, pollutants from a coal-fired electrical generating station are carried by prevailing winds long distances away from the plant and have an effect on air quality in a national park or other area downwind from that plant.”
The scientific consensus on that diagnosis is far from unanimous, however.
“Usually ozone pollution is caused by traffic rather than power plants,” said Saewung Kim, an assistant professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of California, Irvine. “Power plants have done a great job cleaning up their emissions and ozone-causing pollutants.”
Scott Denning, a climate scientist at Colorado State University, says ozone forms “downwind of where it was created,” and lists the ingredients as “unburned fuel from gasoline, nitrogen oxide and sunlight.” He said it’s understandable that Sequoia would have a level of 90 ppb because it’s “between the L.A. basin on one end and the Bay Area on another – 20 million people can produce enough [pollution] and it’s a sunny place and can cook it in the air and drift upwards.”
California’s governor and legislators have spent years enacting measures aimed at forcing residents to curtail driving, which is blamed for most of its smog. The state has only four coal-burning plants.
Such evidence ought to be proof that Obama has been wrongfully attacking certain segments of the economy, said Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa.
“The biggest offender is Mother Nature, with volatile organic compounds,” he said. “It will get to the point where almost anything you do will have an effect on pollution.”
Pennsylvania has 74 power plants fueled by either coal or petroleum and has spent decades struggling to comply with EPA measures. Approximately 40 percent of its manufacturing jobs have been lost since 1990, according to the Center for Regulatory Solutions.
“If your county or region is not meeting the standard, you are in non-attainment,” said Kevin Sunday, government affairs director of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce. “You have to spend whatever it takes or go buy emission credits.”
A Pennsylvania study looking at the 65 ppb level found a $98 billion state product loss from 2017 to 2040; $109 billion in compliance costs; and 101,182 lost jobs.
Response to the new standard will depend to a great degree on guidance from the EPA, as states and counties submit plans that will also include what to do about the national parks in their particular area.
“Until that guidance is available and states have produced plans identifying what measures are necessary to meet the standard, the National Park Service does not know its role,” the NPS’s Olson said. But he was sure about one thing: “It is NOT safe to say ozone levels are worse because of tourists.”
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