WASHINGTON – The Bush administration will not challenge a proposal approved in the last days of the Clinton presidency to clean up hazy skies over national parks and wilderness areas, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman said Tuesday.
The proposed rule, requiring states to impose pollution controls on hundreds of older power plants, was approved by President Clinton eight days before he left office. It would require coal-fired utilities, industrial boilers, refineries and iron and steel plants built between 1962 and 1977 to be retrofitted with new pollution-control technology by 2013.
However, some could meet the requirements by swapping pollution credits, which companies can earn and trade by reducing their overall emissions.
"Part of the President's commitment to protecting national parks includes protecting the views that draw us to these parks year after year," Whitman said. "We intend to clear that air. This rule will help ensure that people will be able to see and appreciate these national treasures for many years to come."
That would cut sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter and directly improve the air in 156 national parks and wilderness areas, the EPA said. Haze is caused when light hits tiny particles, such as soot, sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxide emitted by power plants, refineries or natural pollution sources, such as forest fires.
Whitman said the visibility in some national parks, like the Great Smoky Mountains, is reduced by as much as 80 percent on the haziest days.
Environmentalists said Tuesday they worried the administration still might try to delay or weaken the Clinton-era proposal before a final rule is issued. The proposed rule already was studied by several federal agencies under former President Clinton.
"The concern is that the White House or the Office of Management and Budget or the utility industry would push for a weakening of the more aggressive approach reflected in the Clinton proposal," said John Walke, director of clean air programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Meanwhile, a group of utility companies has been fighting in federal court for the past two years to block the EPA's regional haze program.
The proposed rule, amending part of EPA's 1999 regional haze rule, tells states which of the older industrial facilities that emit more than 250 tons of view-impairing pollutants annually must install "best available retrofit technology."
But it also gives states flexibility to consider economic factors, energy impacts and the remaining useful life of the facility. The new requirements also could be met through an emissions trading plan similar to one used in EPA's acid rain program, giving states that take this option more time beyond 2013 to comply.
States that affect the air quality of the Grand Canyon -- Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming -- also would get different time frames to work with, the EPA said.
In Western states, the pollution cuts a 140-mile view down to 33 to 90 miles on average, the EPA said. In the East, 90-mile views often are reduced to 14 to 24 miles on average.