Testimony of Don Barger

Congressional Testimony

Testimony of Don Barger
Senior Director, Southeast Regional Office
National Parks Conservation Association

Before the
Tennessee Valley Authority Caucus
Knoxville, Tennessee

July 21, 2003

   Chairman Alexander, Members of the TVA Caucus, we are grateful for your presence here today and appreciate the opportunity to present testimony on the critical issues facing the future of this agency. The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) was founded in 1919. Today, we have more than 300,000 members and a mission to preserve and protect America's national park system.

   The first thing that is important for me to say is, "I love TVA." I live in the Town of Norris, a planned community built by TVA in the 1930s to house the workers who built Norris Dam. The town was designed to promote community life and it still works today. I use the electricity TVA produces, I fish in its streams, and I canoe on its rivers using the access areas it maintains. These things greatly enhance my quality of life. It is ironic, then, that TVA is also responsible for contributing to the largest single threat to my quality of life-the polluted air we must breathe.

   A principle threat to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the same poor air quality that also affects our cities. Growing up in Chattanooga, I remember when TVA dealt with its air pollution problem by raising the height of its smokestacks. We've come a long way since then and TVA has reduced some of its air pollution from some of its facilities. However, the evidence shows that TVA still has a lot of work to do.

   In this world of public relations, I was not a surprise that TVA issued late last week a report entitled "How Clean Is The Air?" a retrospective looking back to 1979 and printed throughout in beautiful Sky Blue ink. This is a classic Glass-Half-Full report. But the report's title asks the right question-how clean is the air now? Unfortunately, the answer is that we live in one of the most highly polluted areas in the country and our national park is not only America's most visited, it's also our most polluted.

   Air quality in Great Smoky Mountains and other national parks is an appropriate measuring stick for the effectiveness of proposed changes in national clean air policies. If we have the wisdom to save our parks, they may very well save us. Emission-based multi-pollutant strategies must be linked to real results. Here in the Smokies region, the natural resources, the scenic vistas, the health of 9 million park visitors yearly and the vitality of our economy are clearly at risk if nothing is done, or if the wrong thing is done.

   TVA has testified in support of Clear Skies; here are some of the reasons why, as Senator Alexander has noted, that legislation falls far short of protecting the Smokies.

   Clear Skies would eliminate federal law that gives National Park Service scientists a seat at the table when major new or expanded industries are proposed with emissions that would impact the health of the park. The bill would restrict park service input to only those proposed new sources within 50 kilometers, or 31 miles, of the park. But the vast majority of the pollution affecting the park today comes from well beyond the proposed 31-mile limit. The proposed solution simply doesn't land where the problem is.

   Why is that review important? Let's examine some of the current impacts of air pollution on Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


   When visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains are asked why they came, the number one survey response is "to see the scenic views." Power plant pollution is overwhelmingly responsible for obscuring those views. Congress has a goal to restore natural visibility decades from now in 2064. With Clear Skies fully implemented 20 years from now, we would only see a few extra miles, falling behind even that modest schedule.

   Moreover, Clear Skies would eliminate a key Clean Air Act program requiring outdated park-polluting power plants and other smokestack industries to install Best Available Retrofit Technology (BART), without offering any specific provision to clean up these older, highly polluting plants. If BART were implemented for just the largest power plants alone, as required by current law, at least 4.5 million tons of sulfur pollution and 1.9 million tons of nitrogen pollution would be eliminated annually-an amount equivalent to the entire first phase of Clear Skies.


   Last summer, there were 42 days of unhealthy air in America's most visited national park, more days than in Atlanta or Cincinnati. Ground-level ozone irritates human lungs, triggers asthma attacks, and damages forests, agricultural crops, and other plants. The park has documented 30 plant species that are currently being damaged by this pollution. Most disturbing, ozone pollution is increasing at the park.

   While motor vehicles are a primary source of the pollution that forms ground-level ozone, coal-burning power plants contribute a significant amount of nitrogen pollution to the mix.

Acid Deposition (Acid Rain):

   The peaks of the Smokies have recorded the highest combined levels of acid deposition of any monitored site in North America, far beyond the ability of park soils to process. This pollution places streams and soils of the sensitive spruce-fir forest found around Clingmans Dome at risk.

   Most legislative proposals including Clear Skies would set caps on emissions of sulfur and nitrogen, and allow trading. However, trading of nitrogen and sulfur into areas that result in increased pollution in Great Smoky Mountains and other national parks should not be allowed. Based on EPA's own models, Clear Skies, fully implemented, fails to protect the Smokies. Under that plan, acid deposition would continue to get worse.

Mercury contamination:

   Power plants are the largest uncontrolled source of mercury pollution in the United States, but this is scheduled to change in 2008 when regulations require plants to reduce mercury emissions by up to 90%. Mercury is a toxic poison that when deposited in water builds up in fish species, placing children and pregnant women especially at risk from health effects that include brain damage and birth defects.

   Earlier this month, 138 Representatives sent a letter to President Bush showing concern for the mercury provisions outlined in Clear Skies. Clear Skies allows triple the mercury of current regulations and gives power plants a decade longer to achieve this weakened goal. For the first time, it would allow companies to trade credits for a toxic pollutant. We got rid of lead in gasoline by quickly phasing it out; we should do the same thing with mercury.

   TVA releases more than 4,400 pounds of toxic mercury each year. Last year Great Smoky Mountains began to monitor mercury pollution for the first time. Preliminary data indicates that of the 66 sites that monitor mercury nationwide, the park will be one of the top 10% worst sites nationwide for mercury deposition.

Global warming:

   Evidence continues to mount that our nation must decide not if, but when, we are going to address global warming. The impacts of increased temperatures are already evident in northern states and even in our national parks. At Glacier National Park in Montana, the most expansive glaciers have been reduced by a third since 1850, with smaller ones no longer present. One study estimates that all of the park's glaciers may disappear completely in 30 years.

   An International Biosphere Reserve, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has some of the most diverse plant and animal life in the world. We're only beginning to discover its richness as the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory continues to uncover new species. According to the EPA, global warming could impact the unique forests in the Smokies by adding "significantly to the stresses of these forests as conditions suitable for the growth of red spruce and Fraser fir disappear under warmer and drier conditions."

   Power plants emit 40% of the carbon pollution largely responsible for global warming. TVA alone emits 109 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, and this increases each year. Nevertheless, Clear Skies relies on voluntary measures to control global warming and allows carbon dioxide emissions to continue to increase.

   Congress must provide regulatory certainty to the electric industry now by requiring mandatory reductions of carbon dioxide. Technology investment decisions made by TVA in the near future should be based on dealing with these harmful emissions that inevitably will be regulated.

TVA's Contributions:

   For almost 10 years, I participated with TVA in the Southern Appalachian Mountains Initiative (SAMI). A principle finding of the extensive modeling done by SAMI was that much more of the pollution affecting the Smokies was "home-grown" than had previously been suspected.

   While the nation reduced its overall emissions of SO2 during the 90s, visibility at Great Smoky Mountains National Park showed no improvement. This is no mystery when you consider that during this time, TVA actually increased its SO2 output from its plants closest to the Smokies and continues to use emission reduction credits to emit SO2 considerably above its Phase II allocation.

   The efficiency of a facility has a major impact on air emissions; the more coal that is burned directly equates to more air pollution. TVA's existing boilers get at best no more than 40% efficiency in conversion of coal to electricity. Most are actually in the lower 30% range, meaning that we are consistently wasting 60-70% of the potential energy in the coal we burn. Pollutants like carbon dioxide can be significantly reduced simply with an increase in combustion efficiency.

   The bottom line is this: TVA is poised to make considerable and perhaps questionable investments in retrofit technologies over the next few years to comply with clean air regulations. The fact that TVA has a number of older coal plants that are smaller and less efficient, yet are big polluters, may mean that it does not make economic sense to put pollution controls on them. Instead, maybe they should be replaced with state-of-the-art technology to increase efficiency and allow for maximum control of dangerous pollutants.

In Conclusion…

   In order to assure good decision-making that looks at these and other issues on a level playing field, we need a transparent process for TVA. TVA Congressional Committees of jurisdiction and this TVA Congressional Caucus serve as the only reviewers for major financial investments and decisions made by this agency. NPCA and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) are calling on TVA to develop a comprehensive plan like their outdated Integrated Resource Plan to fully look at the ramifications of these decisions.

   Members of the affected public should be integral parts of this planning process and not just after-the-fact commenters. This Caucus can and should assure that processes are in place to provide the necessary third party or independent review of major decisions made by TVA.

   In May, Congressman Wamp gave a luncheon speech at our Air Summit here in Knoxville that had us all sweating and saying "Amen!" He called on TVA and other area agencies to become "living laboratories" and centers of excellence in the development of new technologies. TVA is at a cross-roads of decisions about whether to pour money into old, inefficient technology that will not meet the challenges of the future, and will soon be viewed as an imprudent investment driven by short term decision-making, or to provide leadership and embrace advanced technologies like gasification and clean renewable energy to guide us forward in the new century. TVA has a unique opportunity to invest in the future and secure a leadership position both economically and environmentally.


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