Story by Sarah Vig
In almost all respects, Great Smoky Mountains (GSM) National Park’s list of attributes reads like a conservationist’s wish list: largest old-growth forest east of the Mississippi, largest spruce fir pine forest, among the most biodiverse ecosystems in North America, most visited national park in America, salamander capital of the northern hemisphere, the list goes on.
But there’s a black mark on that list: among the highest levels of air pollution of any national park in the U.S.
Though the park itself is distinctly un-industrial, the world has changed around it, and has not left it untouched.
The burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil produces emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) that, when released into the atmosphere, convert into harmful secondary pollutants such as sulfates, nitrates, and ozone.
Bad Air Day
Ozone, or smog, is one of the Smokies’ most serious air pollution issues. According to a National Parks Service (NPS) report, ozone concentrations have “exceeded standards to protect public health and vegetation.”
High ozone levels can cause breathing problems among visitors, and tissue damage in developing lungs. In 2007, the most recent year for which monitoring data is available, the park experienced 19 “bad ozone days” on which park officials were required to ask sensitive groups such as children, asthmatics and the elderly to stay indoors. Since then, the EPA has lowered the number of parts per billion of ozone considered to be safe according to National Ambient Air Quality (NAAQ) standards, meaning even greater levels of non-attainment for GSM park.
Air pollutants are also affecting plant life. According to the NPS, 30 species of plant life in the park show visible damage from ozone pollution. SO2 and NOx pollution also produces acid rain, which contributes to tree death by removing nutrients from soil, releasing toxic aluminum, and weakening the trees’ defense to disease or infestation.
Finally, air pollution levels have severely degraded visibility in the parks. On bad days, visitors see haze rather than the soft fog for which The Smokies are named. Haze has cut visibility in the park by an estimated 40 percent in the winter and 80 percent in the summer. NPS findings show that sulfate particles account for 84 percent of the haze on the worst days.
Two new coal-fired power plants are currently under construction within 150 kilometers of the park: Duke Energy’s 825 megawatt Cliffside Power Plant in Rutherford Co., N.C., and Dominion Electric’s 668 megawatt Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in Wise Co., Va.
Both have faced numerous challenges from citizens, environmental and conservation organizations, and federal land managers concerned about increased levels of hazardous emissions negatively impacting air quality, and human and ecological health.
In a victory for the U.S. Forest Service and the Virginia Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Dominion Electric pledged in late 2007 to cut SO2 emissions to half of the permitted level (4.1 tons per year) in response to complaints from the respective agencies.
Duke has said that its new plant will result in net reductions of SO2 emissions, but this claim has been met with skepticism by officials within federal agencies and environmental advocacy groups.
“The real-world effect of [Duke Energy’s coal-fired power plant] by itself would be severe impacts upon air quality and air quality related values at Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” wrote John Bunyak, chief of permit review for the NPS, in a letter to the NC DAQ board.
A 2007 Supreme Court decision gives some credence to Bunyak’s statement. The court found that the company had been improperly evaluating emissions at 8 plants in the Carolinas and failing to adopt the required BACT (Best Available Control Technology) updates. This decision may mean a reevaluation of Duke’s emissions calculations, according to the NC DAQ, which may in turn mean a more stringent permit, though no measures to this effect have yet been enacted.
Blue Skies Ahead?
But, there is reason for optimism. State and federal laws passed within the last five to 10 years have forced emitters to progressively limit the release of dangerous air pollutants. According to Great Smoky Mountains’ Air Resource Specialist Jim Renfro, “acid deposition, ozone, visibility and particulate matter [have been] improving over the past 10 years.”
And, even a smog cloud has a silver lining. As a result of its non-attainment of ozone health standards, the park could be given the authority to limit new polluting industry from starting up.
Renfro gives this advice to citizens looking to help the park: “Use less electricity, drive less, [and] stay informed.”