Texas May Soon Be Forced To Clean Up Air At Iconic National Parks

CREDIT: flickr/ daveynin

South Rim overlook, Big Bend National Park, 2012

On Thursday the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a plan to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions that impede views, disturb health, and disrupt experiences at renowned national parks in Texas and Oklahoma. The requirements of the Clean Air Act are not being met at these federal lands, which include Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks in Texas, and the EPA was forced to partially disapprove of Texas’ regional haze plan after it was found inadequate.

Luke Metzger, director of the Austin-based Environment Texas, told ThinkProgress that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) plan proposed a few years ago relied mostly on natural improvements in air quality.

“For Big Bend, TCEQ proposed no new pollution controls at nearby facilities,” said Metzer. “Under that plan it would have taken 141 years before the air returned to its natural state of visibility.”

Metzger said the EPA plan, which requires eight Texas power plants to install pollution controls to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, is much better. He said these are the same kind of pollution controls that are used at power plants across the country.

“These are well-known issues going back at least a few decades,” said Metzger. He said some days visitors can’t see some of the mountains in the Texas parks. “This is key to the experience — in addition to the health concerns associated with breathing stuff in the great outdoors that you’re supposedly trying to get away from.”

Big Bend — Texas’ biggest and oldest national park — and Guadalupe Mountains National Park are designated “Class One” areas under the Clean Air Act, giving them the highest level of protection for air quality.

The Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma is also part of the proposal, however Oklahoma has already committed to haze-preventing pollution controls at three electricity-generating plants and submitted a plan that the EPA deemed approvable, unlike Texas’ plan.

According to the EPA, the proposal would cut about 230,000 tons of SO2 emissions per year. The EPA first set standards for SO2 in 1971, with fossil fuel combustion at power plants accounting for around three-fourths of all domestic SO2 emissions. Short-term exposure to SO2 has been linked to bronchoconstriction and increased asthma symptoms, with studies showing a connection between this exposure and increased visits to ERs and hospitals for respiratory illnesses.

TCEQ responded to the EPA’s announcement with predictable skepticism, saying it would cost more than $2 billion “for a negligible increase in visibility in Class One areas, such as national parks and wildlife areas.”

The agency goes on to say that these costs would invariably be passed on to consumers, and could have consequential impacts on the state’s power grid. TCEQ is evaluating the proposal and will have additional comments during the 60-day review period. If governor-elect Greg Abbott’s track-record as Attorney General is any indication, the state may pursue legal action. As Texas Attorney General, Abbott sued the EPA 17 times and the Obama administration at least 25 times.