Plumes of nitrogen oxide spiral into the air from northern Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station and waft into the views and nostrils of thousands of visitors who have escaped into half a dozen parks in the area — including the Grand Canyon.
Two years ago, the National Parks Conservation Association identified air and noise pollution among the top three environmental threats to Grand Canyon National Park, and the group’s Southwest regional director, David Nimkin, described the park as “at grave risk.” Yet the Environmental Protection Agency just proposed that the coal-fired power plant be given until 2023 to comply with Regional Haze Rule emissions standards — a five-year extension on its previous agreement with the EPA.
The EPA is well aware of the pollution issues. “For 90 percent of the year, the Grand Canyon’s air quality is impaired by a veil of pollution haze that reduces the pristine natural visual range by an average of more than 30 percent,” a recent EPA statement read.
The other parks affected by the toxic emissions are Zion, Bryce Canyon, Mesa Verde, Arches, and Canyonlands. These parks are required to maintain Class I airsheds, legally the highest level of air quality protection, as are all national parks and wilderness areas of a certain size that existed when the Clean Air Act was amended in 1977. One hundred fifty-six such public lands fall into this category.
The Navajo Generating Station, which lies on Hopi and Navajo land and relies on coal mined there, is in such egregious violation of the Class I standards that it will have to reduce emissions by 84 percent in order to comply. The plant helps power the Central Arizona Project (CAP), an aqueduct system that the state of Arizona relies on heavily for water. “Last year, CAP used 2.8 million megawatt hours to deliver more than 500 billion gallons of Colorado River water to a service area that includes more than 80 percent of the state’s population,” according to the CAP website.
Navajo and Hopi tribes face spending $500 million to upgrade the plant into compliance, a financial burden that could force it to close entirely, leaving hundreds of tribal members jobless. That scenario would be disastrous, according to the CAP site: “Closure of the Navajo Generating Station would be an economic disaster for the people of the Navajo Nation and the Hopi tribe, and CAP would have to buy higher cost power elsewhere resulting in a doubling or tripling of energy and water rates.”
The EPA considers the five-year extension to be a reasonable deal. “It’s a deserving compromise, given the real economic threats that face the tribal nations,” Blumenfeld told the Los Angeles Times. “We wanted to provide enough time to work out the economics so that the facility remains open.”
In the meantime, emissions and haze will continue to plague hikers, mountain bikers, and campers in the parks and public lands. (See this link for a Grand Canyon air quality webcam at Yavapai Point.) As National Parks Conservation Association’s Nimkin put it, “As time goes on, parks will become more valuable to everyone.”
Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com. Photo by Troy Snow/Flickr