Conservationists may sue EPA to enforce rule protecting air quality of national parks, wilderness

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 472 views 

Conservation organizations, including the Sierra Club, might sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because it didn’t enforce a rule requiring states, like Arkansas, to submit revised plans to improve air quality in national parks and wilderness areas.

According to a state agency, the revised plan for Arkansas is in the works. It’s expected to be submitted to the EPA within six months. The state’s draft plan is expected to be available for public comment within 30 days.

On Feb. 7, the conservation organizations notified EPA Administrator Michael Regan of their intent to sue for failing to timely issue whether 39 states have submitted revised regional haze state implementation plans (SIPs) as required by the Clean Air Act. Regan was to do this by Jan. 31, or six months after the states’ revised plans were submitted.

“The administrator is now in violation of his nondiscretionary duty to make that determination,” according to the group’s Feb. 7 notice of intent to sue. “Because these states have in fact failed to submit the required SIPs by the July 31, 2021, deadline, the administrator further is in violation of a nondiscretionary duty to determine that these states have not submitted SIPs that meet the minimum completeness criteria.”

The notice shows that determining whether the states filed the revised plans is “not only required by the Clean Air Act but it will further this administration’s promises to protect air quality in the nation’s national parks and wilderness areas. Decades of delay in finalizing and implementing regulations to reduce visibility impairing haze in our parks and wilderness areas has deprived citizens of the enjoyment of these precious resources, and has caused visitors, employees and wildlife to be unnecessarily exposed to harmful levels of air pollution.”

In 1977, Congress directed the EPA to implement Clean Air Act plans to protect national parks and wilderness areas from air pollution. In 1999, the EPA issued the Regional Haze Rule requiring states to issue regional haze state implementation plans regularly. According to the notice, the plans include “emission limits, schedules of compliance and other measures to ensure reasonable progress toward eliminating visibility pollution” in the parks and wilderness areas. The first plans were due in 2007.

In 2017, the EPA revised the Regional Haze Rule, requiring each state to “revise and submit its regional haze implementation plan revision to EPA by July 31, 2021, July 31, 2028, and every 10 years thereafter,” the notice shows. The revised plans are expected to show each state’s progress in reaching “the Clean Air Act’s reasonable progress requirements.”

According to the notice, the conservation organizations plan to file a federal suit against the EPA by April 8 “to compel EPA to perform its overdue mandatory duties under the Clean Air Act.” Until then, they would work with the EPA to resolve the issue.

According to a Sierra Club news release, haze impacts 90% of national parks “with the same pollutants responsible for the widespread air pollution that harms public health, particularly in communities targeted by generations of systemic racism. Air pollution from burning fossil fuels worsens community health, drives up healthcare costs, and makes it harder for kids to learn and play and adults to work.”

The release shows that pollution also impacts the climate. The regional haze plans would help reach natural visibility in national parks, improve public health, and reduce climate pollution. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, at least 16 facilities in Arkansas contribute to haze.

“We need the EPA to take action if (Gov. Asa) Hutchinson is unwilling to lead Arkansas toward compliance with federal clean air laws that will make it easier for people to breathe before, during and after visiting our beautiful national parks,” said Uta Meyer, executive committee member for the Sierra Club Arkansas Chapter. “The EPA needs to fulfill its obligation under the regional haze rule by requiring big polluters to reduce emissions established by Congress.”

Asked why the state has yet to submit a revised plan, the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment, Division of Environmental Quality, provided the following response: The state agency’s Office of Air Quality (OAQ) “has developed a draft revised plan for the Regional Haze Program for the 2018-2028 planning period. In accordance with consultation requirements under the Regional Haze Rule, OAQ shared the draft revised plan with other state air quality agencies and federal land managers on March 1, 2021. In response to feedback from other states and the federal land managers and to address issues raised in a clarification memo from the (EPA) issued on July 8, 2021, OAQ performed additional technical analyses and updated the draft plan.

“OAQ anticipates proposal of the draft revised plan for public comment within 30 days and submission to EPA of a final plan within the next six months,” the statement shows.

The Sierra Club is among 39 conservation organizations intending to sue the EPA. Earthjustice is representing them.

Link here for the notice of intent to sue.