How EPA’s Haze Rule Can Help Keep Our Air Clear

Guest Blog | June 17, 2016 | Coal, Energy Policy

This blog was written by Mary Anne Hitt, Director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. The original blog was published on May 20, 2016 and appeared here, on Huffington Post’s Green blog

The Environmental Protection Agency is currently taking comments on updates to the Regional Haze Rule. Click here and let EPA know that you want a stronger Regional Haze Rule to protect air quality in national parks and wilderness areas in the Southeast – including our nation’s most visited national park- The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

If our air isn’t clean, our communities can’t be healthy.

I grew up just outside Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the gateway community to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where my dad worked as the chief scientist. Growing up in the Smokies, clean air was essential to the health of the national park, visitors and local residents, and the economy. But on some summer days growing up, although you were in one of our nation’s crown jewel national parks, it was unhealthy to go on a hike, and you couldn’t see the next ridgeline, due to air pollution. Much of that pollution was coming from old, outdated coal-fired power plants nearby.

We weren’t alone – national parks and other special places around the country suffer from high rates of air pollution worse on some days than the pollution in our biggest cities. Why are our parks and communities suffering from this pollution?

There is a federal standard in place called the Regional Haze Rule that was intended to ensure clean air in national parks and wilderness areas. However, the protections haven’t been strong enough to do the job, polluters have been skirting them for decades, and some states charged with developing cleanup plans have just kept kicking the can down the road instead. Fortunately, after years of work by clean air and public health advocates calling for action, the Environmental Protection Agency is moving forward with revisions that could close some of these loopholes. Without strong safeguards protecting our air, we simply can’t keep people healthy, economies strong and natural wonders pristine.

Last week, I testified at a public hearing at EPA headquarters in Washington, DC about these revisions to the Regional Haze Rule. On behalf of Sierra Club, I called on EPA to adopt strong revisions to the standard that will adequately protect public health, local economies, and natural areas in our national parks and wilderness areas.

Looking back on my time growing up, pollution was not just a threat to the health of visitors and local residents – it was a threat to our economy. When people chose to spend their precious summer vacation days in the Smokies, only to discover they couldn’t see our famed mountain views or safely enjoy the outdoors due to a “code red” air pollution day, there was a real danger they would never come back, and would warn their friends from visiting as well.

Communities like mine count on EPA to hold these polluters accountable and ensure we are safeguarding our health, local economies, and most special places. The rule specifically designed to protect our parks is not strong enough in its current form. But revising this standard could change that, benefiting everyone.

As you might expect, polluters are working hard to undermine changes that would strengthen the haze rule. That’s what makes this moment critical: if we can ensure that much-needed revisions to the Regional Haze Rule occur, we can keep our air clear.

Here are four common-sense measures that EPA can adopt to protect our air:

Make sure state plan requirements to clean up pollution are clear, robust, and uniform throughout the country, including requiring a more robust technical analysis. Our clean-up efforts should be guided by sound science and uniform standards.

Require that states meet, and do not miss, important deadlines, which they are currently missing regularly under the current system, sometimes by years.

Not allow states to delay cleanup of this pollution for another decade by allowing them three more years past the current deadline (until 2021, as EPA is currently proposing) to submit their haze cleanup plans. The public has been waiting long enough for clean air, and pushing action into the next decade is unacceptable.

Ensure EPA is able to enforce these rules and take corrective action if states are falling down on the job. Strong standards matter, but they don’t mean anything unless they’re enforced.

We all deserve clean air. Strengthening our air pollution standards is within our reach, and now is the moment to make this happen.

We need to be sure that EPA finalizes the strongest possible standards, so that communities like the one where I grew up can count on clean air, a safe environment, and a thriving local economy for generations to come. You can help – take action here for clean air in our parks.

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