Environmentalists say a proposal to clean up the air over national parks throughout the West is nothing more than officials blowing a lot of smoke.
"It is ludicrous that a proposal that ostensibly has the goal of reducing emissions will result in allowing emissions to increase for 13 years," said Rick Moore, air quality manager for the Grand Canyon Trust.
The proposal is part of a multi-state effort known as the Western Regional Air Partnership that primarily focuses on strategies for reducing sulfur dioxide, mostly from large coal-fired industrial plants. Automobiles, forest fires and dust from roads also contribute to the haze.
It's a result of a three-year effort between Western states and Indian tribes to rid the air of pollutants that cloud the vistas at national parks. It's also a required part of the regional haze regulations developed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which must sign off on the plan.
Public hearings on the proposal have been held throughout the West. A Salt Lake hearing will be at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Room 101 of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, 168 N. 1950 West.
Grand Canyon Trust, a regional conservation organization based in Flagstaff, Ariz., calls the plan "weak and ineffectual," falling short of protecting the visibility at Grand Canyon and other national parks on the Colorado Plateau.
"It needs to be reasonably aggressive," Moore said, adding that under WRAP's proposal, "Nobody has to clean up for 13 years."
The proposal calls for reducing the annual sulfur-dioxide emissions from the current regional level of 652,000 tons to 510,000 tons by 2018.
But the emission targets, known as milestones, allow for higher emissions than today's level during the next 13 years. For instance, in 2003, the annual regional emission limit is set at 720,000 tons — much higher than the current level.
There are reasons for that, said Colleen Delaney, environmental scientist for the Utah Division of Air Quality. The milestones were set to take into account growth, she said. Also, it takes into account fluctuations that occur in hotter weather when there's an increase in air-conditioning.
Another reason is because the current regional level of 652,000 tons doesn't account for two smelters, one in New Mexico and another in Arizona, that aren't operating at this time due to the low price of copper.
"They are fully permitted," Delaney said. When they come back on line, they would add another 30,000 tons of sulfur-dioxide emissions to the air, she added.
Yet Moore said it's reasonable to expect that lower sulfur-dioxide emissions can be achieved because emissions have already been reduced from 840,000 tons in 1990.
Environmentalists also criticize another part of the plan that would allow an emissions trading program to kick in if any of the milestones are exceeded.
Under the regional plan, credits are given that allow a certain level of pollution. Polluters within the region can buy and sell those credits among themselves as long as the region's overall target is met.
The proposal can be viewed at www.wrapair.org.