Why is haze a problem?
Is haze unhealthy?
Is haze an economic problem?
Is haze controllable?
What did Congress intend as a solution in 1977?
What’s been taking so long?
That’s already a long time. Why is it now going to take centuries more?
What about recent improvements or pollution reduction requirements?
Where do these dates and numbers come from?
The Problem with Haze
National parks and wilderness areas were protected to make our country’s natural wonders available to current and future generations. Places like Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks offer inspiration and recreation. Unfortunately, air pollution doesn’t respect the places we’ve set aside. Our national parks are subject to pollution that comes from sources near and far – limiting visibility, endangering our health, and harming the park ecosystems.
Yes. The same pollutants that cause visibility impairment also contribute to serious health damage like lung and heart disease, asthma attacks, and premature death. Even basic measures to clean up haze would prevent thousands of premature deaths and heart attacks annually, as well as over 1 million lost school and work days.
Yes, haze has negative economic impacts. First, the health problems associated with haze pollution are costly to treat. Primary cleanup actions are estimated to provide between $8.4 and $9.8 billion in health benefits. Second, our parks and wilderness areas are strong economic drivers. In 2010, national park tourism contributed $32 million to the economy and provided over a quarter of a million jobs. Studies support the finding that the amount of time visitors spend in the parks – and therefore the amount of money they spend in local economies – is linked to their perception of the air quality.
Yes, much of it is. There are some natural sources of haze, including wind-blown dust, natural fires, and cloudy or foggy days. However, a significant portion of the haze seen today is caused by pollution from human sources like power plants and vehicles. Much of this pollution could be controlled cost-effectively and efficiently with modern technology.
Solutions to the Haze Problem
In 1977, Congress recognized the significant air quality problems facing our national parks. Democrats and Republicans alike overwhelmingly supported the idea of restoring clean, clear air in 156 of America’s largest national parks and wilderness areas. The law they passed requires the Environmental Protection Agency and states to cut haze pollution, eventually eliminating human-made haze in these places. In particular, Congress specified that bigger, older industrial facilities like coal-fired power plants – built before many modern Clean Air Act requirements – must be updated with modern technology.
Unfortunately, progress has been slow. It wasn’t until 1999 – 22 years after Congress’ call to action – that the Environmental Protection Agency finally adopted rules for how to tackle the problem of regional haze – widespread pollution from multiple sources that combines to harm the parks. Even then, the 1999 Regional Haze Rule gave states 65 years to slowly and steadily reduce air pollution. In all, the ultimate compliance date – the year 2064 – is 87 years after Congress charged states and the Environmental Protection Agency with returning clean air to the parks.
In their haze cleanup plans, some states were unable to show that their protected parks and wilderness areas would be on track to meet the 2064 deadline. Those states predicted that clean air would not be reached in some cases for hundreds or even thousands of years. These delays are especially discouraging because by law, the easiest pollution reductions to achieve – from modernizing bigger, older industrial sources – are required to happen now. In many cases, the Environmental Protection Agency has approved these unacceptably extended timeframes.
NPCA is encouraged by the improvements shown in some protected public lands in recent years, and also by the adequate haze cleanup requirements that have been set in some states. However, these are not sufficient or secure. All protected areas – even those on track to meet the 2064 deadline – still require significant improvement to reach natural visibility. Nearly all of the good cleanup requirements have been subject to legal challenge, placing their potential benefits in limbo.
Visibility impairment is a well-documented issue based on real measurements in the parks. The amount of time it will take to achieve natural visibility is calculated by the states and the Environmental Protection Agency. These calculations are based on models of the estimated change in pollution during the first haze cleanup planning period (roughly from 2000 to 2018). While there is some uncertainty in these calculations, the general trends are accurate.