Interior grows impatient with park pollution efforts

Published October 1, 2000

In an August 22 letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, an official at the Department of Interior asked EPA to develop new regulations designed specifically to protect air quality in the National Park System.

Interior’s demand for action comes 16 months after Vice President Al Gore announced, on Earth Day 1999, a plan to restore visibility in national parks and federal wilderness areas.

The Gore-touted effort, the “Regional Haze Rule,” requires the states to work with EPA, the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Forest Service to develop and implement air quality protection plans to reduce the pollution that causes visibility impairment. The first state plans are due in 2004.

Interior worries the visibility program will result in too little action, too late. “Recent actions by EPA to deal with nationwide and regional air pollution problems will help,” Assistant Interior Secretary Stephen Saunders wrote in his letter to EPA, “but we don’t think they will be enough. New measures, designed specifically to protect the special values of parks and wilderness areas, are necessary to accomplish the goal Congress set.

“Twenty-three years after Congress declared that a purpose of the Clean Air Act is to preserve and enhance air quality in national parks and wilderness areas, we have documented serious and growing damage from air pollution in those special places,” Saunders continued. He asked EPA to help reverse the pollution increases in the Smokies (North Carolina and Tennessee) and Shenandoah (Virginia) parks by implementing steps to cut the flow of pollutants at their source in industrial areas in the Midwest and some Middle Atlantic states upwind of the mountain preserves.

According to Saunders, airborne pollutants are not only contaminating the air over the Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, Shenandoah, and other major national parks, but are poisoning lakes and streams in the parks as well.

EPA’s latest Air Quality Trends report confirms some of Saunders’ concern, showing an upward trend in air quality problems at 9 of 25 national parks. In 1999, the Smokies suffered 52 days of air quality violations, down from 69 in 1998 but far greater than the nine days of violation in 1990. Shenandoah was in violation of air quality standards for 15 days in 1999, down from 22 the year before but again up significantly from four in 1990.

While EPA reports an upward trend in ozone concentrations at seven other National Parks, those parks rarely exceeded the agency’s NAAQS eight-hour ozone standard.

  • Between 1990 and 1999, Big Bend National Park (Texas), Congaree Swamp (South Carolina), and Denali National Park (Alaska) reported between them just one day in violation of the standard, and that in 1995.
  • Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado) has violated the standard three days over the past 10 years, with one violation in 1999.
  • Cape Romain (South Carolina) has violated the standard seven days over the past 10 years, with two violations in 1999.
  • Cowpens National Battlefield (South Carolina) violated the standard 43 days over the past 10 years. But in 1999, it violated the standard just seven days–down from 15 the year before.

For more information

about EPA’s “Visibility Improvement Program,” visit the program’s Web site at