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Why national parks, coal-fired power plants may be neighbors

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Officially, the EPA says it is proposing "refinements" to regulations that measure Class-1 air-quality standards.

But federal air-quality experts at the EPA and the National Park Service say the planned changes would be a backward step for air quality.

"It's hard to see this proposal as improving air quality in the parks," says John Bunyak, policy chief at the National Park Service's planning and permit branch, which oversees air-quality issues. "It could allow additional pollution sources to locate in a particular area, where they wouldn't have been permitted under the old rule."

Inside the EPA, staff air experts have protested that the proposal would weaken the criteria used to evaluate just how polluted a Class 1 area already is – and how much pollution a new industrial facility would be permitted to add to that area.

EPA regional staff experts, in internal documents, said the proposal provided "the lowest possible degree of protection" against spikes in pollution – a common occurrence during hot days, when power plants operate at near maximum output.

The proposed changes would effectively hide pollution spikes from regulators, ignore existing major polluters, allow "phony pollution accounting" methods, and let states establish their own standards, says Mark Wenzler, clean air director of the National Parks Conservation Association, a Washington-based advocacy group.

An EPA spokesman in Washington declined to grant an interview or respond to e-mailed questions. A fact sheet about the proposed rule and a letter to Congress on the change were referred instead. "The proposed rules would provide greater regulatory certainty and reduce complexity without sacrificing the current level of environmental protection," the fact sheet says.

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