WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency plans to announce next week that the air quality in areas that include at least eight of the United States' most popular national parks is in violation of a new and more protective federal smog standard, National Park Service officials said Wednesday.
Yosemite Park would join three national parks in California-- Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Joshua Tree -- listed as having unhealthy air. The air quality in those three parks already violates the EPA's old and less stringent smog standard, which was based on a one-hour measurement of air quality. That is being phased out in favor of an eight-hour measurement. Other popular national parks to be newly designated as having dirty air include Rocky Mountain in Colorado, Great Smoky Mountain in North Carolina and Tennessee, Acadia in Maine, and Shenandoah in Virginia, National Park Service officials said.
"The fact that the behavior of society is messing up the cities we have learned to expect, but to have the same effects occur in areas that are supposed to be special national treasures is disturbing, to say the least," said Christine Shaver, chief of the air resources division of the National Park Service.
The EPA's announcement, scheduled for next Thursday, will identify the counties across the country that exceed the new standard for ground-level ozone, the main component of smog. State and local governments will be required to devise plans to clean up the air by specified deadlines that vary from three years to 20 years, depending on the severity of the pollution problem. The EPA must approve the plans, and areas that fail to meet deadlines face severe penalties, such as a loss of highway funds.
The National Park Service estimates that 112 of its 387 sites -- including national monuments, historic sites, battlefields, seashores and recreation areas -- are in areas expected to be in violation of the new standard, officials said. Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California and Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts are among those likely to be listed.
More than 110 million people -- almost 40 percent of the nation's population -- live in places where the air is too dirty to meet the new standard, according to EPA measurements of air quality between 2000 and 2002.
But when Americans escape the cities to relax in some of their favorite national parks, they could be breathing air with unhealthy amounts of ground-level ozone -- a pollutant that can aggravate asthma, encourage respiratory illnesses, such as pneumonia, and damage lungs. It also eats away at the flora and fauna in the parks.
Although more cities will be designated as having unhealthy air under the new ozone standard than under the old standard, urban areas across the country have seen improvement in smog levels in recent years.
However, smog levels have been steadily increasing in many national parks. From 1993 to 2002, 18 out of the 28 national parks that monitor the air for ozone experienced increases in their eight-hour ozone levels, according to EPA data.
The National Park Service was particularly concerned about the smoggy air designations for seven of the parks and the Point Reyes National Seashore, which were given special protection by Congress in the 1977 amendments to the Clean Air Act. The action increased pressure on states and local governments to protect the air quality in pristine areas.
National Park Service officials said visitors who flock to Yosemite -- a mecca for climbers, backpackers and photographers -- likely would be stunned to learn that it had been designated as having unhealthy air.
"It is going to surprise a lot of people, but it's not going to surprise the park's managers," said Judy Rocchio, regional air quality program coordinator for the National Park Service.
The air quality monitor at Turtleback Dome measured violations of the new smog standard six times in 2000, four times in 2001, 24 times in 2002 and 10 times in 2003, according to National Park Service data.
The park is trying to reduce pollution with a plan that would limit day-use access by cars and trucks, but that would have a limited impact on Yosemite's smog problem. Most of the dirty air in Yosemite blows in from the Central and San Joaquin valleys, where millions of cars, trucks, buses, farm vehicles and construction equipment emit huge amounts of pollution. Pollutants from the Bay Area are also a factor.
In addition to threatening visitors' health, the pollution can weaken and cause early deaths of the park's Ponderosa and Jeffrey pines, which are very sensitive to ozone, Rocchio said.
"The main message is that people really have to make decisions in their lives to pollute less," Rocchio said.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, which are immediately downwind of the San Joaquin Valley in Central California, have the worst smog of any national park. The parks' air monitors have measured violations of the smog standard on as many as 81 days a year.
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