Utah’s prime electricity source blamed for bad air quality in national parks

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is ranked 16th out of 48 national parks in new report that measure clean air making it Utah’s worst ranked park. Photo: tammywetzel/Twenty20

Utah’s national parks are barely passing the clean air test.

Report cards from the National Parks Conservation Association, which grade based on three clean air categories, lists three of the state’s “Mighty Five” with D’s for two of three categories. The other two parks received C’s. And blame is being placed on the state’s main electricity source: Rocky Mountain Power’s coal-fired power plants.

Out of 48 national parks, Zion ranked the state’s worst at No. 16, Capitol Reef at 21, Bryce at 22, Canyonlands 29 and Arches 30.

“We were trying to make it accessible to people and trying to capture a sense of how air pollution is impacting the parks in these three different areas,” Nathan Miller, engineering and science manager for NPCA’s clean-air program told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Analyzing air quality data from 2008 to 2013, the NPCA graded on three categories: ozone, visibility and changing climate. Grades are based on the number of unhealthy air quality days, average miles of visibility in respect to pollution-related haze and frequency of weather deviation from historical norms.

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According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Utah’s parks, in particular Zion, struggles with ozone levels. But the problem isn’t with the number of cars being driven in park areas, rather what happens in the parks’ airshed which is shared with the state’s primary source of electricity: Rocky Mountain Power’s Huntington and Hunter coal-fired power plants.

“Unfortunately, earlier this year, the state put forth a proposal that would give a pass to big polluters by unfairly allowing the Hunter and Huntington coal-fired power plants to continue to dump dangerous haze-causing pollution into our air without having to clean up those emissions,” Ulla Reeves, the NPCA’s clean-air program manager, told The Salt Lake Tribune.

“Coal plants in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico have already installed state-of-the-art pollution controls, showing that this technology provides common sense, cost-effective ways to reduce emissions that put public health and clean air at risk.”

Bryce National Park

Frequency of weather deviation from historical norms is one measure the National Parks Conservation Association used to grade parks air quality. Photo: iReeedi/Twenty20

In April, the National Park Service also pressed Utah environmental regulators to crack down on the power plants. The park service wrote letters to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“The state clearly values the importance of the five national parks in Utah and actively promotes national tourism, yet at the same time it appears unprepared to fulfill its legal requirements under the Clean Air Act and associated regulations to protect and enhance the very scenic views that attract millions of visitors to the parks every year,” wrote Tammy Whittington, associate regional park service director.

Despite the National Park Service and advocate efforts, Utah’s air quality division would not take further steps to help increase air quality citing the closure of Rocky Mountain Power’s Carbon Power Plant in April brought the state to regional standards and high retrofitting costs of the Huntington and Hunter plants would be cost prohibitive.

“You’re talking in excess of $170 million per unit. They are custom retrofits; the actual cost would vary per unit. You get a better result by the work already done [on four units] at Hunter and Huntington and the Carbon closure than the regional haze rules requires,” RMP spokesman Dave Eskelsen told The Salt Lake Tribune in April. “If you add SCR to those units, you get a substantial expense to consumers with a marginal benefit to the regional haze quality.”

But, advocates are not convinced.

“Rocky Mountain Power's coal plant smokestacks may not be right at our doorstep in Salt Lake City, but their air pollution affects the entire region," said Christopher Thomas, Executive Director of HEAL Utah in a press release. "Utahns want and expect cleaner air and more clean energy. It's unacceptable to ignore Utah's coal pollution problem while other states are moving forward and requiring deep pollution cuts."

The debate continues.

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