U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt (left) spoke with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in Salt Lake City on July 18. Pruitt agreed to revisit an Obama-era EPA ruling against Utah’s regional haze plan. [Photo courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency]

The State of Utah may get another opportunity to develop a plan for combating regional haze and improving visibility over area national parks after former President Barack Obama’s administration rejected its original efforts in August 2016.

On a recent visit to Utah, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt said he would review the Obama-era mandate requiring the installation of modern pollution control systems on the Hunter and Huntington coal-fired power plants upwind of Moab.

The National Park Service and Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ) have identified the two Emery County plants as point-source contributors to regional haze over Utah national parks and congressionally designated wilderness areas.

Pruitt made the announcement during a July 18 visit to Utah, where he met with Gov. Gary Herbert and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to discuss the re-writing of the EPA’s Waters of the United States Rule, another Obama-era environmental safeguard.

“I think what’s happened in the past eight years is that the EPA hasn’t looked at the states as partners,” Pruitt said in a televised interview on KTVX. “They looked at the states as mere vessels of federal will.”

Pruitt said he would like to give the state more say, and that by providing clear regulation while working with states through compliance and assistance, the EPA could protect the environment while enhancing economic growth.

“It’s partnering with states like Utah, and the governor and the DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) here in the state to make sure that we have clear goals that we are seeking to achieve,” Pruitt said.

Grand County resident and Utah Sierra Club chapter chair Marc Thomas questioned why Pruitt didn’t meet with any outdoor recreation industry leaders, conservation groups or others who were affected by air pollution in national parks.

“Just as when Interior Secretary Zinke visited Utah to hear testimony on our newest national monuments, Pruitt is only listening to those in state government who agree with him,” Thomas said. “He is ignoring the tens of thousands of us who signed petitions and submitted comments calling for the EPA to enforce industry-standard pollution controls.”

Grand County Council member Mary McGann said she believes that Utahns deserve strong protections from coal pollution.

“To undo the protections Utahns have been given is irresponsible, short-sighted and disappointing,” she said. “We, the people, deserve the protection – not corporations.”

State regulators submitted a revised version of Utah’s Regional Haze State Implementation Plan in June 2015. The plan was designed to comply with EPA standards for regional haze over “Class 1 view areas” that include national parks, wilderness areas and wildlife refuges.

The EPA previously rejected portions of the plan in 2012 because it did not require the installation of the “best available retrofit technology,” or Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR), to reduce nitrogen oxide and particulate matter at the Hunter and Huntington power plants.

The revised plan still did not require the expensive SCR technology, but instead relied on the closure of the 1950s-era coal-fired Carbon Power Plant, and previously installed low-nitrogen oxide burners at the Hunter and Huntington plants, to meet the EPA’s standards.

The EPA again rejected the state’s plan in July 2016, and in August of the same year, PacifiCorp/Rocky Mountain Power – the company that operates both plants – filed an appeal.

“The EPA’s Federal Implementation Plan would have cost electric consumers up to an additional $700 million for no appreciable benefit in visibility,” PacifiCorp/Rocky Mountain Power spokesman David Eskelsen said. “Utah’s State Implementation Plan would achieve more visibility benefits, many of which are being realized now at lower cost to consumers.”

Eskelsen said that in its 2016 decision, the EPA failed to consider key emission reductions that the state required and that Rocky Mountain Power has already implemented to improve visibility, including the installation of low-nitrogen oxide burners at the power plants.

“We’ve worked with state environmental regulators diligently for decades on a plan for the most effective way to reduce regional haze and protect the scenic vistas in national parks,” Eskelsen said. “We continue to insist Utah’s plan met the requirements of the Regional Haze Rules, which are to make reasonable progress toward natural visibility in Class 1 areas by 2064.”

PacifiCorp/Rocky Mountain Power and the DEQ sent letters to Pruitt saying that new evidence is available since EPA’s 2016 decision, and that they would submit new visibility modeling relevant to the state’s alternative to requiring SCR.

“DAQ invested significant time and effort into ensuring the state plan met legal standards and advanced our goal of improving visibility in our national parks while protecting ratepayers from significant rate hikes,” DEQ Executive Director Alan Matheson said. “Consequently, we think it’s appropriate to use the most accurate modeling tools in reviewing that work, especially in light of the significant costs associated with the federal plan.”

Known for their dramatic vistas, Utah’s national parks, including Arches and Canyonlands, experience impaired visibility due to or human-caused haze 83 percent of the time, according to past air quality monitoring studies performed at Canyonlands.

In March of 2015, National Park Service (NPS) officials sent a letter to EPA urging them to reject DAQ’s proposal for improving regional air quality, and to instead require the installation of SCR technology on the coal fired plants.

“The State of Utah clearly values the importance 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,” Tammy Whittington, then-NPS associate regional director, said in the letter.

Thomas questioned how President Donald J. Trump’s administration could ignore the testimony of its own National Park Service and said that without SCR controls, pollution from Hunter and Huntington power plants would continue to impact views in national parks, while adversely affecting the health of residents in the region.

“This is just another dispiriting example of the Trump administration ignoring the public will and public welfare to placate big corporations that care only about profits,” Thomas said.

Obama administration previously rejected proposal

We’ve worked with state environmental regulators diligently for decades on a plan for the most effective way to reduce regional haze and protect the scenic vistas in national parks.

To undo the protections Utahns have been given is irresponsible, short-sighted and disappointing.