Oh Say Can You See? Air Pollution and the Smoky Mountains

Guest Blog | August 19, 2015 | Climate Change, Coal, Energy Policy
Back in 1990, average visibility in the Smoky Mountains was just 25 miles. Since then, reductions in air pollution have made it possible for visitors to see as far as 46 miles. In the absence of any air pollution, however, visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would be able to see a whopping 112 miles!

This work in progress was recently documented by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) in its “Polluted Parks” report. As we look forward to new, health-based air pollution regulations on the horizon, we are likely to see continued improvement in air quality in and around the Smokies.

Of the 48 national parks studied by NPCA, 36 experienced either “moderate” or worse ozone pollution according to the Air Quality Index developed and maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency. Air pollution at these levels can affect vulnerable populations, such as children who have asthma or the elderly. NPCA found that every single one of the 48 parks are affected by haze pollution, reducing visibility by an average of 50 miles. This may not seem like a huge loss, but when you consider that national parks are a huge boon to local economies as well as a national treasure, it becomes clear that we all have a vested interest in the success of these parks.

In NPCA’s “Top 12 Parks Most Harmed by Air Pollution: Report Card,” the Great Smoky Mountains National Park landed at number 11. The report card metrics included healthy air, seeing clearly, and changing climates. 90% of our national parks are currently experiencing extreme weather linked to climate change caused by pollution from fossil fuels – meaning they are hotter, wetter or drier than they were for most of the past century.

Much of the air quality improvement in the Smokies is due to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s decision to retire several of its aging, dirty coal plants. Currently, TVA generates about 40% of its electricity from coal plants, but a significant amount of that capacity is due to be retired between now and 2020. Ultimately, TVA is aiming to reduce its overall coal capacity to around 20%, which will mean even more benefits for the Smoky Mountains and its visitors.

The Regional Haze Rule is the controlling regulation for air quality in our national parks and is aimed at completely removing human-caused air pollution in these areas by 2064. Along with the 48 national parks, the Regional Haze Rule also protects 108 wilderness areas managed by the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Once a decade, states must revise their plans to lower air pollution in these areas, but many states continue to take advantage of loopholes within the rule. Because the rule isn’t clear on what pollution reduction options states need to consider, or how they need to be weighed, some states can claim that reducing pollution is nearly impossible while ignoring available, commonsense pollution reduction opportunities.

To learn more about air quality in our national parks and how you can help strengthen the Regional Haze Rule, read the full NPCA report here.

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