Outlook hazy

Talk about a corner office with a view. On a clear day from a high vantage point in Great Basin National Park, Tod Williams says he can see for more than 100 miles.

“You can actually see the Rockies,” says Williams, chief of resource management for the park in east central Nevada. “It’s pretty phenomenal.”

Williams might want to snap some pictures, though, because Kodak moments of breathtaking views might be all he has left if Sierra Pacific Resources is allowed to build the coal-fired Ely Energy Center a mere 40 miles from the 77,000-acre park. Then, Great Basin officials say, visitors can expect hazy vistas and declining air quality in the state’s only national park.

Last fall, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid tried to derail three proposed coal-fired power plants in Nevada. He slipped an amendment into a massive appropriations bill that would toughen air-quality standards at Great Basin so much that the power plants would never make the grade. The amendment didn’t make it.

But it was more than a mere bit of senatorial strategy. Officials at Great Basin—along with others at other national parks around the country—are battling to protect their air quality from both a rash of proposed power plants and a Bush Administration Environmental Protection Agency that’s looking to soften air-quality standards at national parks.

Great Basin National Park has some of the cleanest air in the national park system. In fact, park officials say it’s often used to get a baseline for clean-air standards when studying air quality in the contiguous United States.

Sierra Pacific Resources has proposed building the Ely Energy Center, a 1,500-megawatt coal-fired power plant, smack-dab in the center of White Pine County. Not much farther away, LS Power hopes to build its 1,600-megawatt plant 25 miles north of Ely. White Pine County is pretty much all for them. Enviros are against them. The state has already given both plants draft permits.

Meanwhile, park officials have come out with their own research showing that the Ely Energy Center in particular would hurt both the views and the biology of the park.

“Our biggest concern through modeling will be a 10 percent reduction in visibility in the park on 21 days a year,” says Williams. “That’s significant, because this park has some of the cleanest air and best visibility in the park system. It’s exceeded only by Denali [National Park in Alaska].”

Great Basin also hosts some of the cleanest, clearest water in Nevada. The problem is that the proposed power plant would also emit sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which comes back down to earth in the form of acid rain and acidic dust.

In its preliminary review of the proposed plant’s impacts on air quality, the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection saw little to worry about. “[The division] has determined that the proposed project may be constructed and operated without an adverse impact on air quality, will not cause or contribute to an increment exceedence, and shows no adverse impact on a Class 1 area.”

In “Dark Horizons,” a report released this month by the National Parks Conservation Association, the group points to nine other national parks threatened by new coal-fired power plants, including Zion National Park and Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. The report also says one in three national park sites has air pollution levels that violate Environmental Protection Agency health standards.

Meanwhile, the EPA last year proposed changing how the government monitors pollution near Class 1 areas—which generally means national parks. Critics say that instead of measuring pollution in both three-hour and 24-hour increments—the better to capture pollution spikes during peak periods of energy use—the new rule would average levels over the course of a year, presumably hiding pollution spikes that might otherwise violate Class 1 air standards.

“The rule doesn’t change the level,” says EPA spokesperson Cathy Milbourn. “It just really affords permitting authorities some discretion in deciding how to best simulate actual changes in air quality over these time periods.”

The new rule could be in place by the end of the year, but in the meantime, fans of national parks won’t be breathing any easier.