Overlaid photos taken from the Island in the Sky District at Canyonlands National Park on two different dates illustrate the effects of regional haze. Park service officials say anthropogenic, or human-caused, haze mars vistas in Canyonlands and Arches National Park 83 percent of the time. [Photo courtesy of the National Park Service]

Utah’s proposed plan to cut pollution from regional haze is not sufficient to improve air quality at Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks, according to a letter from the National Park Service to state and federal regulators.

The agency is urging the Utah Division of Air Quality to take “strong action” by requiring significant reductions in emissions of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter from the Hunter and Huntington coal-fired power plants in Emery County. The changes are needed in order to improve visibility in the region, and to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Regional Haze Plan under the Clean Air Act, National Park Service Associate Regional Director Tammy Whittington said in the letter.

“The State of Utah clearly values the importance of of the five national parks in Utah and actively promotes park tourism, yet at the same time it appears unprepared to fulfill its legal requirements under the Clean Air Act … to protect and enhance the very scenic views that attract millions of visitors to the parks every year,” Whittington wrote.

The Clean Air Act requires states to reduce haze pollution in more than 150 Class 1 areas, including national parks, wilderness areas and wildlife refuges under its Regional Haze Rule. Utah has five Class 1 areas, including Bryce, Zion, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches national parks.

The Division of Air Quality’s own modeling analysis found that the plants are likely contributors to visibility impairment at Utah’s national parks, making them subject to EPA regulations to limit emissions through the installation of the “best-available retrofit technology.”

According to the EPA, visual range at national parks in the West has been reduced from 140 miles to between 35 and 90 miles primarily due to “anthropogenic,” or human-caused, haze. Long-term monitoring at Canyonlands National Park indicates that visibility in Arches and Canyonlands is impaired by anthropogenic haze 83 percent of the time.

“Although truly spectacular, the scenic views that characterize these parks are degraded on many days by industrial haze that impairs visibility and dulls sensational colors and contrasts,” Whittington said. “Under the worst conditions, anthropogenic haze can render the inspirational landscapes of our national parks and their encompassing view-sheds, to be colorless and bland.”

Utah Division of Air Quality Environmental Scientist Colleen Delaney told the Moab Sun News that the state’s proposal has provided an alternative to best-available retrofit technology requirements for the Hunter and Huntington power plants. She said the recent closure of the coal-fired Carbon Power Plant, combined with previously installed low-nitrogen oxide burners at the Hunter and Huntington plants, will achieve the reductions that the EPA is seeking.

“You achieve greater reduction through the alternative pathway than simply focusing on these four units,” Delaney said.

According to Delaney, Rocky Mountain Power has reduced sulfur dioxide emissions from the two plants by about 66 percent since 2008; nitrogen oxide emissions have dropped by about 40 percent during the same period. Releases of mercury and particulate matter from both plants are also on the decline, according to Delaney.

Delaney said that it was important to weigh the costs and benefits before going to the next level of nitrogen oxide reduction when the outcome is uncertain. She said that studies undertaken by the division show greater improvements in visibility through sulfur dioxide reduction, and that those reduction systems are already in place.

“We all agree that it is an important thing to protect visibility in national parks,” she said. “But we aren’t sure controlling (nitrogen oxides) will achieve the desired result.”

National Parks Conservation Association Southwest Senior Program Manager Cory MacNulty said the state’s plan to factor in reductions from the closed Carbon plant continues to dodge the issue of air pollution from Units 1 and 2 at Hunter and Huntington. The division’s latest proposal offers nothing new, she said.

“Unfortunately, we keep talking about the same questions because the state’s plan really hasn’t changed in this round; they’ve just repackaged it,” MacNulty said.

While the reductions from the now-defunct Carbon plant are a step forward, MacNulty said they are not really an alternative to emissions cuts from Hunter and Huntington.

The EPA first rejected portions of the state’s plan in 2012. In response, state regulators rewrote the plan and submitted it for public comment in November 2014. The proposal has since been rewritten again and is open for public comment until Friday, May 1. State regulators are expected to make a decision and pass it on to the EPA in June.

Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson said that agencies have been working for years to address the regional haze issue and that there are many technical and policy issues to work out. He said that from a technical standpoint, there are many sources of pollution in the Southwest, including power plants and large metropolitan areas in southern California, Nevada and Arizona.

“We’re (downwind) from all that,” Jackson said. “So pinpointing the exact sources is not as simple as it seems.”

Jackson said that from a policy standpoint, there are other factors to consider, such as the value of energy to our economy and lifestyles; jobs associated with generating power; and the challenge of assessing those values against the value of views from parks.

“As with most things of this nature, there are no easy answers,” he said. “Hopefully, everyone working together can ultimately result in solutions that work for all.”

MacNulty thinks it’s especially noteworthy that the superintendents of Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks joined Whittington’s calls for stronger action to improve regional air quality.

While the agency’s Air Resources Division often submits highly technical comments on similar plans, MacNulty said it’s rare to see park officials take such a public stand.

“It’s pretty unusual to have the National Park Service weigh in with its supervisors involved and explain why clean air is so important for the parks’ resources,” she said. “We see it as a really important voice that’s often missing from the process.”

MacNulty said that Utah is the last state to comply with EPA requirements, and that coal-fired power plants in neighboring Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico have pledged to reduce emissions by 90 percent.

Delaney said that criticism of the state’s plan to reduce regional haze overlooks the accomplishments that Utah regulators have made over the last 15-plus years.

“A lot has been done, and it was done early,” she said. “You need to look at the bigger picture of what’s been achieved.”

Agency urges state regulators to further reduce regional haze pollution

It’s pretty unusual to have the National Park Service weigh in with its supervisors involved and explain why clean air is so important for the parks’ resources … We see it as a really important voice that’s often missing from the process.

The public comment period on Utah’s regional haze plan is currently open through Friday, May 1. Comments should be emailed to mberger@utah.gov. For more information about how to submit comments, go to www.airquality.utah.gov/Public-Interest/Public-Commen-Hearings/Pubrule.htm