Senator tries to clear air

Alexander wants Park Service to withdraw proposal he fears would permit pollution

Posted on February 3, 2006

WASHINGTON - Sen. Lamar Alexander on Thursday urged the National Park Service to delete proposed changes in a broad management plan that he fears would allow a level of permanent, man-made air pollution in national parks including the Great Smoky Mountains. "If 'natural' conditions are defined to include man-made impacts like coal-fired power plants, it is difficult to see how we will ever achieve clean air in our parks," Alexander, R-Tenn., wrote to Fran Mainella, the Park Service director. Alexander is vice chairman of the national parks subcommittee of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and owns a home just outside the Smokies park. David Barna, a spokesman for the National Park Service, said he could not comment directly on Alexander's letter. But in general, he said: "These management policies are just general guidance to our superintendents. We don't believe that these management policies change anything with respect to air pollution or snowmobiles or recreation activities at all." Alexander, who also met with Mainella in his office Thursday, said new park management plan proposals also seem to reduce the importance of conservation and increase the likelihood of more noise pollution, so "I'm not convinced the rewrite process is even necessary at this time." Other senators also have questioned the need to revise the management plan. There's good news and bad news in the Smokies' air pollution saga, park spokeswoman Nancy Gray said Thursday. Unhealthy air days for ozone pollution have declined from 52 in 1999 to 10 in 2003, three in 2004 and nine in 2005, she said. However, "we're experiencing the highest air pollution of any national park," Gray said. "There have been some improving trends." The park and several counties surrounding it are in violation of federal clean air laws for ozone pollution. Mark Wenzler, a spokesman for the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group, praised Alexander for challenging the proposals. "He's a real champion for national parks on a lot of issues," Wenzler said. Another troubling proposal in the new management plan, Wenzler said, would switch park managers' roles from initially objecting to potentially harmful new air pollution sources upwind of them to trying to identify "technological solutions" that prevent harmful impact to parks' air quality. Alexander challenged this change as a burden for park managers. "This creates a complicated, costly and unworkable new obligation for national parks," Alexander wrote to Mainella. At the Smokies park, visibility varies based on wind direction, amount of sulfate particles emitted from fossil-fuel plants and other factors. Annual average visibility is 25 miles per day, compared to natural conditions of 93 miles, but that can shrink to less than 1 mile during severe haze, the park's Web site says. But, again, there's some recent good news, Gray said. In the past decade, visibility has improved by about 20 percent on the worst days, she said.