In a decision that raises the possibility of increased pollution in national parks around the country, the Bush administration will allow North Dakota to change the way it estimates air pollution over Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The change, announced Friday in Bismarck, N.D., means that a consortium of power companies will be able to go ahead with a coal-fired power plant in North Dakota, and other power plants could open in the future, state officials said.
Compliance with the Clean Air Act’s requirements on national parks is determined by a system for estimating pollution levels. The new system, which is expected to produce lower estimates, could allow new coal-fired plants to be built near the North Dakota park without violating the law.
“That sets the stage for new investments in our energy industry and real progress in our rural communities,” Gov. John Hoeven said in announcing the agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency.
David Glatt, chief of the environmental health section of North Dakota’s Health Department, said the changes should make the state’s estimates better match the actual air quality over the park. As a result, the state will be able to allow more projects that create air pollution, like power plants, to be built.
“What we’ve done is we’ve got a model that does a better job of predicting what the real world sulfur dioxide emissions will be,” Glatt said.
Sulfur dioxide emissions contribute to the haze visible in skylines and are a major source of acid rain, which damages trees, waterways and other components of the park system, such as national monuments
Several environmental groups challenged the state’s description of what the new system will do.
“Our deep concern is that this is a damaging case of politics trumping sound science and the long-standing judgment of EPA’s professional staff that could have far-reaching impacts and allow harmful air pollution degradation at national parks across the country,” said Vickie Patton of Denver, a lawyer for Environmental Defense, a national environmental group.
“New coal-fired power plants are being proposed across the inter-Western United States that are predicted to have harmful impacts on national parks.”
The EPA and the state had been at loggerheads since 1999 over whether the air over the park and the Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge violated federal standards meant to prevent degradation of air quality in public lands.
As recently as last summer, the EPA had argued that because the park’s air violated pollution standards, additional energy development should not be allowed.
But in a draft memorandum of understanding with the state, the EPA agreed to allow the state to use a new technique for estimating the pollution that state officials said would show that the air was not as dirty as previously thought.
Environmental groups accused the EPA of violating the spirit of the 1977 amendments to the Clean Air Act, which was designed to protect national parks and other public lands from becoming polluted by industrial development.
“Under the Clean Air Act you are supposed to keep pristine areas like natural parks relatively pristine,” said Frank O’Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust, an advocacy group. “This looks to be a terrible precedent for national parks across the country.”
The environmentalists said this was another in a string of efforts by the Bush administration to ease pollution rules to benefit the energy industry.
“What they did to work on the problem was to cook the books,” said Mary Mitchell Bismark, organizer of Dakota Resource Council, a regional environmental group. “What the EPA has agreed to significantly changes the rules of the game.”
Bill Wehrum, counsel for the EPA’s assistant administrator for air, disagreed, saying the change was a result of a long negotiation between the state and the EPA “about developing a method that will produce results we can rely on.”
Environmentalists said the EPA would now be pressured to make similar deals with other states that wanted to build power plants upwind from national parks. For instance, efforts to build coal-fired power plants in Utah have been hindered in part by concerns that pollution from them could sully the air in Capital Reef National Monument, opponents said.
Glatt, the North Dakota environmental health official, said several states, including Utah and Nevada, had shown interest in the new technique for modeling pollution over parks.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota’s top tourist destination, preserves the rugged Badlands and sweeping prairies that beguiled its namesake as a young man. Known as one of the presidents with the strongest commitment to conservation, Roosevelt established five national parks, 18 national monuments, 51 wildlife refuges and 150 national forests.
Valerie Naylor, the park’s superintendent, said she had not analyzed the announcement. But, she said, “we are concerned about anything that could degrade the air. Scenic views are extremely important in the Badlands.”
Floyd Robb, vice president of communications for Basin Electric Power Cooperative, one of the companies in the consortium considering North Dakota as the site of a power plant, called the agreement “good news,” but added that the group of power companies had yet to decide where to build the plant.