On the Path to Clearer Skies and Healthier Communities: Legal Action Advances Regional Haze Protections

Every year, over 300 million of us pack our bags, lace up our boots, and set off to explore the vast, untouched beauty of America's national parks. Our checklists are filled with the trails we'll hike, the wildlife we hope to encounter, and the serene spots where we'll set up camp. But there’s one factor that could cloud our perfect outdoor experience: pollution from coal plants, drifting from hundreds of miles away, obfuscating the very landscapes we seek to enjoy.

And the problem of coal pollution isn't just about hazy views obscuring the grand vistas of our beloved parks. The same haze pollution that diminishes views brings serious health impacts. Soot pollution released by coal plants is linked to approximately 3,800 premature deaths annually, a grim figure that doesn't even scratch the surface of the broader impact of fossil fuel pollution on the climate, or even the other kinds of harmful pollutants released by coal plants. Those living in the shadow of these plants, often communities of color, bear the brunt of this environmental injustice, experiencing air and water pollution from coal plants at a disproportionately higher rate.

 Air pollution can also harm people visiting and working at national parks, as recent research from the National Parks Conservation Association finds 96 percent of parks face ozone pollution problems that negatively affect human health.

Federal Action On Haze Pollution

Under the Clean Air Act, states must not only address air pollution within their borders, but also consider their impact on downwind neighbors and the shared treasures of our national parks and wilderness areas. EPA's Regional Haze Rule, established in 1999, requires a collaborative effort among state, Tribal, and federal agencies to craft and implement State Implementation Plans (SIPs) to address haze pollution that impairs views in national parks and threatens public health.

The first SIPs were due in December 2007. States were then required to submit comprehensive SIP revisions, known as “Phase Two” plans, in 2021. EPA was supposed to respond by approving, disapproving, or  partially approving or disapproving these Round Two Regional Haze Plans. However, EPA failed to take action on 33 states’ plans. It took a coalition of environmental advocates, including the Sierra Club, to step in with a lawsuit, prompting a consent decree that compels the EPA to make timely decisions on these critical plans. 

The settlement lays out a timeline for the EPA to review and approve or disapprove the haze clean-up plans of 33 states, from New York to Oklahoma. If EPA disapproves a state plan, the agency must implement its own federal clean-up plan or approve a lawful, corrective state plan. These plans, when they follow the requirements and intent of the Clean Air Act, have the power to significantly cut down harmful emissions, safeguard public health, and restore the natural beauty of our iconic landscapes.

In chronological order of EPA’s deadline to issue determinations, the 33 states are New York, Massachusetts, Kansas, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Delaware, Wisconsin, Georgia, North Carolina, Utah, Wyoming, West Virginia, Arizona, Ohio, Idaho, Michigan, Texas, California, Florida, Oregon, Colorado, Montana, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, North Dakota, Indiana, Washington, Hawaii, Nevada, Alaska, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.

Some of these state plans, if approved, promise to curb harmful emissions, improve public health, and restore the splendor of iconic landscapes. Unfortunately, not all plans are created equal. Some states have submitted do-nothing plans that extend the smoggy status quo, at the expense of parks and communities within their borders and beyond. The EPA now has the crucial task of weeding out inadequate plans and leveraging its authority to enforce stringent Federal Implementation Plans that demand real, impactful pollution control measures.

Strong implementation plans, whether state or federal, can achieve meaningful air quality improvements by requiring coal plant operators to install and run proven, readily available pollution control technology. 

The Power of Pollution Controls

The evidence is clear: pollution controls at coal plants save lives. On average, coal-fired generating units without modern, industry-standard controls for corrosive nitrogen oxide (NOx) or controls for soot are twice as deadly as coal plants that are fully controlled, according to Sierra Club research. Units without modern controls for harmful sulfur dioxide (SO2) are more than three times as deadly as coal plants with SO2 controls.   

But despite their effectiveness, the majority of remaining coal plants lack effective controls to reduce haze forming emissions. These uncontrolled plants harm nearby communities and diminish air quality hundreds of miles away. Regional Haze plans offer an opportunity for EPA to change this by ensuring every state implements a strong plan that requires common-sense pollution controls used throughout the industry. 

To learn more about haze pollution and what EPA can do to curb it, Sierra Club analysts created an interactive dashboard highlighting US coal plants that contribute to regional haze at our national parks, and which ones still need better controls. For ease of interpretation, the universe of plants has been trimmed to those that lack firm retirement plans. The dashboard also shows exactly when EPA must make a determination on state plans. 

Explore the dashboard here and below, and stay tuned for more updates as EPA issues determinations on state plans to reduce haze pollution.