WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is on the verge of implementing new air quality rules that will make it easier to build power plants near national parks and wilderness areas, according to agency scientists and park managers who oppose the plan.
The new rules which are likely to be finalized this summer, rewrite a provision of the Clean Air Act that applies to "Class 1 areas," federal lands that now have the highest level of protection under the law. Opponents predict the changes will worsen visibility at many of the United States' most prized tourist destinations, including Virginia's Shenandoah, Colorado's Mesa Verde and North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt national parks.
Nearly a year ago, with little fanfare, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed changing the way the government measures air pollution near Class 1 areas on the grounds that the nation needed a more uniform way of regulating emissions near protected areas. The agency closed the comment period in April and has indicated it is not making significant changes to the rule.
Lawyer Jeffrey Holmstead, who helped initiate the rule change while heading EPA's air and radiation office, said agency officials became concerned that EPA's scientific staff was taking "the most conservative approach" in predicting how much pollution new power plants would produce.
The initiative is the latest of administration efforts going back to 2003 to weaken air quality protections at national parks, including failed moves to prohibit federal land managers from commenting on permits for new pollution sources more than 31 miles away from their areas and to only protect air resources for parks that are big and diverse enough to "represent complete ecosystems."
A slew of National Park Service and EPA officials have challenged the rule change.