By Anne Hedges
A hazy day at Glacier National Park. MEIC worked with NPCA and PCEC to host a live webinar about Regional Haze. Watch this event on MEIC’s YouTube page or scan this QR code with your smartphone’s camera.
Have you ever hiked in a wilderness area or visited Glacier or Yellowstone National Park and wished that the air was clearer, so you could better enjoy the view? Such views are one of the things that we love about Montana: big, clear skies that allow us to see forever.
Unfortunately, Montanans are all too familiar with hazy air. Increasingly, smoke-filled skies ruin our summers and drive people indoors or to emergency rooms. Winter inversions in mountain valleys can cause some of the worst air quality we experience all year. There’s not much we can do to prevent winter inversions, or mega-forest fires (other than reverse course on the climate crisis), so when there is an opportunity to limit harmful pollution and haze, we should embrace it. Instead, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is proposing to kick the can down the road and let people breathe polluted air and live with hazy skies for another 10 years.
Amendments to the federal Clean Air Act approved in 1990 required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to improve air quality in national parks and wilderness areas. The goal is to decrease air pollution in these national treasures so visitors can better appreciate them and, in so doing, reduce the emissions of harmful air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds.
Every 10 years, DEQ must propose a plan to reduce air pollution and the resulting haze caused by the state’s largest industrial polluters. The National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA) analyzed the industries that cause the most haze-forming pollution in Montana and, to no one’s surprise, found that the electricity-generating sector accounts for 72% of Montana’s haze-forming and polluting emissions.
As the agency delegated to enforce the Clean Air Act in Montana, DEQ must determine if there are cost-effective ways for Colstrip, cement kilns, refineries, and other large industrial operations to reduce their emissions of the pollutants that contribute to haze. It’s a golden opportunity to clean up the air. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, DEQ is proposing to require exactly nothing of these major industrial sources in this year’s plan – no additional controls, regardless of whether the controls are cost-effective.
Other states, including Texas of all places, have established a dollar figure for what constitutes cost-effective pollution controls. Contrary to recent news articles in Montana, the closure of some coal plants does not help Montana meet its requirements. In fact, many of the pollution control measures that DEQ discarded would have been acceptable to states such as Texas. Instead, DEQ has decided that there is no such thing as a cost-effective measure, meaning no facilities need to decrease pollution at all. This decision means that, without further controls, close to 30,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides will continue to be released into the air for the next decade.
DEQ is taking public comments on its do-nothing plan until March 21, 2022 and will hold a public hearing on Friday, March 18. If you would like to tell DEQ that doing nothing is not acceptable, healthful, or legal, please visit www.meic.org/action-center to learn more, watch a video, and send comments to DEQ.
After DEQ considers the public comments, it will adjust the plan – or not – and then submit it to EPA for final approval. If DEQ ignores public concerns and its legal obligations, the public will have an opportunity at that time to tell EPA to reject DEQ’s plan and require it to follow the law.
This article was published in the March 2022 issue of Down To Earth.