DC - The air above five of the most famous United States national parks is often
more polluted than that of many urban areas, finds a new report released Monday
by three conservation groups. The National Park Service countered with its own
report, finding that the results of a 10 year study show that air quality is improving
or remaining stable in more than half of the national parks monitored.
Both reports blame fossil fuel burning power plants, industrial facilities
and motor vehicles for generating the smog and haze that threatens the health
and beauty of the nation's parks.
The National Park Service (NPS) report "shows that in most parks, air quality
exceeds standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency to protect public
health and welfare," said NPS Director Fran Mainella. "Our findings also show
that some parks occasionally experience pristine air quality conditions, unaffected
by air pollution."
The best visibility, the NPS report found, occurs in Denali National Park
in Alaska, and in an area centered around Great Basin National Park in Nevada.
However, Mainella acknowledged that more work needs to be done to improve
air quality and visibility at many national parks. Air pollution now impairs visibility
to some degree in every national park, she noted.
In 1977, Congress amended the Clean Air Act to establish a national goal of
cleaning up the air over national parks and wildlands, called Class I areas. That
goal has yet to be reached.
"Information in this report will help us to protect air quality related values
from the adverse effects of air pollution by communicating information about air
quality conditions in parks to the public and to state, federal and tribal authorities,"
For more than 20 years, the NPS has been studying air quality in national
park areas, with monitoring now underway at 60 NPS sites. The NPS air quality
monitoring program provides information on ozone levels, acid rain and visibility
impairment in parks.
The NPS report found that from 1990 to 1999, of the 28 parks that were monitored
for visibility, 22 had improving visibility conditions on the clearest days. Ground
level ozone concentrations were monitored at 32 parks, and the results show that
while ozone levels in eight parks are improving, in 16 parks they are getting
Acid rain monitoring was conducted in 29 parks, including testing for levels
of sulfates and nitrates in rain and snow. Twenty-five parks are showing a decrease
in sulfate levels, while 14 show a decrease in nitrate levels, the NPS report
The NPS report agreed with the report issued by the conservation groups in
ranking the parks with the worst air pollution problems. "Code Red: America's
Five Most Polluted National Parks," a report produced by the National
Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), Appalachian
Voices, and Our Children's
Earth, uses an air pollution index, developed by Appalachian Voices for two
earlier studies, to rank the five most polluted national parks based on haze,
ozone and acid precipitation.
"In the Great Smoky Mountains, our most polluted national park, ozone pollution
exceeds that of Atlanta, Georgia, and even rivals Los Angeles, California," said
Harvard Ayers, chair of Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit conservation group focused
on protecting forests and communities of the Appalachian Mountain region.
Besides Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina,
the "Code Red" report names Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, Mammoth Cave
National Park in Kentucky, Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks in California,
and Acadia National Park in Maine as the parks with the nation's worst air pollution.
All of these parks are also cited in the NPS report, titled "Air Quality in
the National Parks."
The ways in which air pollution harms the parks varies. At Great Smoky Mountains,
for example, ozone pollution has violated federal health standards more than 175
times since 1998 and is damaging 30 species of plants. Acidic mountaintop clouds
blanket spruce and fir tree forests, and saturate soils with excess nitrogen.
At Shenandoah National Park, visibility from Skyline Drive and the Appalachian
Trail has shrunk to as little as one mile on smoggy summer days, and acid precipitation
is ruining streams for native fish. At Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks,
ozone levels surpassed human health standards on 61 summer days in 2001, posing
a risk to sequoia seedlings and blocking views of the Sierra mountain scenery.
The NPS report confirms that ozone injury to vegetation has been documented
at Ozone injury to vegetation has been identified in Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains,
Sequoia and Kings Canyon, as well as two additional national parks in California:
Yosemite, and Lassen Volcanic National Park.
At Acadia National Park, scenic views are impaired and acid rain threatens
streams and lakes. Acid rain is also a major problem at Mammoth Cave National
Park, where it seeps through the porous karst rock to pollute underground streams
and the unique wildlife that depends upon them.
The impacts of air pollution are evident throughout the National Park System,
charge the groups behind the "Code Red" report. For example, Big Bend National
Park in Texas was found to have some of the worst visibility in the western states,
and air pollution at this park along the Mexican border is growing worse. Many
other parks are not included in the report because they lack complete monitoring
data, the groups noted.
Other types of air pollution, such as mercury deposits, pose risks at parks
ranging from Acadia to the Everglades in southern Florida. Airborne pesticide
residues from agricultural areas threaten park wildlife, the groups warn, and
global warming caused by emissions of greenhouse gases could disrupt ecosystems
in national parks.
Most park air pollution from human sources comes from burning fossil fuels
such as coal, oil and natural gas, both reports agree. Power plants and industrial
facilities, as well as cars, trucks, planes, trains and construction equipment,
all produce fossil fuel pollution.
Power plant emissions vary by region, but this one industrial sector ranks
among the worst polluters, particularly in the eastern half of the country, the
reports note. For example, sulfate particles formed from sulfur dioxide emissions
from fossil fuel combustion - mostly from electric generation facilities - accounts
for 60 to 80 percent of the visibility impairment in the eastern parks and 30
to 40 percent of the impairment in western states, the NPS report states.
Besides damaging visibility and natural resources at national parks, this
pollution can also harm human health.
"New statistics from the World Health Organization show that in the United
States, air pollution annually kills nearly twice as many people as do traffic
accidents and that deaths from air pollution equal deaths from breast cancer and
prostate cancer combined," said Tiffany Schauer, executive director of Our Children's
The "Code Red" report also assesses progress made during the decade since
the passage of 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, the most recent changes to
"National parks have seen little to no improvement despite the most recent
amendments to the Clean Air Act," said Don Barger, NPCA's southeast regional director.
"For example, pollution from outdated power plants continues to harm parks and
people, when there's no reason older power plants cannot meet modern pollution
NPS Director Mainella says the agency is working to improve air quality in
parks by promoting pollution prevention practices in parks and reviewing permit
applications for new and modified air pollution sources near parks. Yet just last
month, the Department of Interior approved plans for a new coal fired power plant
in western Kentucky that critics charge will increase air pollution at nearby
Mammoth Cave National Park, which already suffers from some of the worst visibility
in the nation.
The "Code Red" groups argue that the Bush administration could, and should,
be doing more to clean up the air over national parks.
"Air pollution in the national parks is a national crisis that requires national
solutions," said Joy Oakes, director of NPCA's Clean Air for Parks and People
campaign. "A key part of the solution is for the Bush Administration to enforce
existing pollution laws. Unfortunately, the Administration is abandoning programs
essential to cleaning up the air in our parks and communities."
The groups argue that the Bush administration must implement and enforce existing
programs of the Clean Air Act, such as the Regional Haze Rule, including the Best
Available Retrofit Technology (BART) amendment and the New Source Review program.
Current Bush administration proposals would eliminate these basic programs,
weakening provisions to protect parks, the groups charge, while President George
W. Bush's plan for clean air protection, called the Clear Skies Initiative, will
not do enough to protect air quality in national parks, the report says.
"Code Red" also makes a case for new federal legislation that would make "sizeable
cuts in power plant emissions," including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury
and carbon dioxide. New legislation is also needed to cut emissions from mobile
sources such as cars and trucks, and to increase the fuel efficiency of motor
Until these actions are taken on the federal level, the "Code Red" report
urges states to find ways to protect themselves, such as controlling in state
sources of pollution. Several states are already moving in this direction, the
report notes. Earlier this year, California became the first state in the nation
to control greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes.
In June, North Carolina passed the Clean Smokestacks Act, requiring the state's
power plants to slash sulfur dioxide emissions by 74 percent, and nitrogen oxide
emissions by 78 percent. Similar legislation has been introduced by Democrats
in the U.S. House and Senate, but has been stalled by Republican and White House
"Ironically, as North Carolina takes steps to improve air quality, the Bush
Administration has proposed a major step backward - actually weakening the Clean
Air Act," noted U.S. Representative David Price, a North Carolina Democrat. "So
even though North Carolina will be doing its part to reduce pollution that causes
ozone and acid rain, our state will continue to be stricken by pollution coming
from other states."