BILLINGS, Mont. — Federal regulators have approved a new measure meant to help turn Montana’s Big Sky Country into Clear Sky Country by forcing industrial plants to cut pollutants that make hazy skies over national parks and wilderness areas.
The Environmental Protection Agency rule, signed Wednesday, has been widely criticized by industry representatives, conservationists and even other federal agencies.
The goal is to restore visibility to natural conditions in national parks and wilderness areas from Idaho to North Dakota by 2064. To get there, the agency detailed $85 million in upgrades needed at the Colstrip coal power plant in southeastern Montana, the Ash Grove cement plant near Montana City and the Holcim cement plant near Three Forks.
The upgrades would reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, pollutants that react with the atmosphere and cause the air to appear hazy. In the western U.S., haze is blamed for reducing visibility by half versus natural conditions, a maximum of 60 to 90 miles.
But conservationists complain the upgrades being required in Montana don’t do nearly enough. They say it would take more than 400 years for some sites to reach the EPA goal.
“EPA is forfeiting an enormous opportunity here,” said Jeremy Nichols with WildEarth Guardians. “The real benchmark is, are we doing everything reasonable to achieve clean air? EPA didn’t achieve that goal.”
The EPA said the effectiveness of pollution control measures were weighed against the costs, and that more expensive upgrades were not justified.
Yet industry representatives said the EPA dramatically underestimates the true costs to companies that must comply, while overestimating the actual improvements those upgrades will produce.
Colstrip operator PPL Montana said installing the pollution control equipment required under the federal rule would cost it $190 million. That’s more than double the $83 million estimate from the EPA.
Colstrip is the second largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi River, burning more than 10 million tons of coal a year to generate about 2,200 megawatts of electricity.
Many other states have been devising their own haze-reduction plans, but Montana chose to let the federal government take the lead. Some states and utilities elsewhere have been pushing back. As with PPL, they cite costs and say the five-year timeline for compliance is too short.
The EPA’s action in Montana comes after WildEarth Guardians and others sued the agency to follow through on haze rules adopted in 1999. Nichols said a legal challenge to the latest rule is possible and would have to be filed within 60 days of its publication in the Federal Register.
A new Environmental Protection Agency rule requires upgrades at some Montana power plants and factories in an effort to reduce the haze over two dozen national parks, wilderness areas and wilderness refuges. Here are the 24 places where the EPA has determined visibility is, or may be, affected by those emissions:
Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness Area, Mont.
Badlands Wilderness Area, S.D.
Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, Mont.
Bridger Wilderness Area, Wyo.
Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area, Mont.
Craters of the Moon Wilderness Area, Idaho
Fitzpatrick Wilderness Area, Wyo.
Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area, Mont.
Glacier National Park, Mont.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyo.
Hells Canyon Wilderness Area, Idaho, Ore.
Lostwood National Wildlife Reserve, N.D.
Medicine Lake Wilderness Area, Mont.
Mission Mountain Wilderness Area, Mont.
North Absaroka Wilderness Area, Wyo.
Red Rock Lakes Wilderness Area, Mont.
Scapegoat Wilderness Area, Mont.
Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area, Mont.
Teton Wilderness Area, Wyo.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, N.D.
U.L. Bend Wilderness Area, Mont.
Washakie Wilderness Area, Wyo.
Wind Cave National Park, S.D.
Yellowstone National Park, Wyo., Mont., Idaho