Clearing the air

To the Editor:

As Americans flock to our national parks this summer to enjoy the great outdoors, they expect and deserve to find clean, healthy air. Sadly, that is not always the case. Our parks remain under threat from air pollution, harming visitors’ health, reducing visibility and driving the impacts of climate change.

A new analysis, released this week by National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), shows that every one of the 48 national parks with the greatest Clean Air Act protections are plagued by significant air pollution problems and climate change impacts. Acadia National Park ranks fifth in the nation for being most harmed by air pollution and climate change impacts combined. In fact, air quality in parks can be as bad as – or worse than – in some major cities due to emissions from outdated coal plants and other sources of pollution.

Of the 48 parks studied, 36 at times experienced “moderate” or worse ozone pollution according to the Air Quality Index developed by the Environmental Protection Agency. These levels of air pollution are risky for especially sensitive populations, such as children who have asthma (roughly one out of every ten children in the United States).

The analysis – “Polluted Parks” – graded the pollution-related damage in the 48 national parks required by the Clean Air Act to have the best possible air quality. The report highlights 12 parks across the nation that earned a D or lower in at least one of three categories – threat to public health, hazy skies, and impacts from climate change.

About 75 percent of the 48 iconic national parks have air quality that’s unhealthy at times.

Haze pollution limits how far you can see in 100 percent of the national parks. On average, visitors miss out on 50 miles of scenery.

Some 90 percent of our national parks are currently experiencing extreme weather that scientists link to climate-changing air pollution: They are hotter, wetter or drier than they were for most of the past century.

Air pollution in Acadia may not be something most visitors are aware is still a problem. Yet views in the park from the tallest mountain on the Atlantic coast should be as long as 153 miles on the best days. But on average, visitors are still missing over 35 miles from their view during a typical visit. Acadia is struggling more than most parks in terms of climate impacts, receiving an F grade due to the dramatic temperature and precipitation changes.

The extreme weather is wearing away at Acadia’s famous granite bedrock and affecting the delicate natural balance of this park’s ecosystem and threatens sensitive wildlife species as well as tourism interests like winter sports. Unless we take action soon to curb the pollution endangering Acadia, we’ll lose more and more of what makes it one of America’s most popular national parks.

The Regional Haze Rule is the program under the Clean Air Act responsible for protecting air quality in our parks. But due to loopholes, states and polluters can game the system to avoid cleaning up.

Fortunately, this is one of those rare problems with a simple solution. With a stroke of the pen, the president can close the loopholes and make common sense revisions to ensure that states and the Environmental Protection Agency are poised in the coming years to restore dozens of our most treasured national parks to clear, healthy air.

The Obama Administration is expected to revise the Regional Haze Rule before the end of its term. The NPCA analysis recommends that changes must include setting park-centered targets for reducing pollution impacting parks for the next decade, as well as closing loopholes that allow some polluters to escape requirements and accountability for states to reduce pollution within their borders.

Ulla Reeves

Manager of NPCA’s Clean Air Campaign

Washington, D.C.

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