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Cally Carswell | Aug 10, 2011 05:00 AM

When I started researching regional haze rules a few months back, a source warned me that I was wading into the Clean Air Act's wonkiest, most technically complicated depths. I remember her asking me something like: "Are you sure you want to go there?" Which is to say, you'd be forgiven if you paid little attention to regional haze. Eyes tend to glaze over at mention of the term.

But here's why you should care about haze rules: They're poised to make a major dent in the air pollutants spewed from the West's oldest, dirtiest coal-fired power plants. Facing huge costs to bring it into compliance with haze regulation, the Boardman power plant in Oregon decided to close in 2020, 20 years ahead of schedule. The Navajo Generating Station could suffer a similar fate. And last week, after rejecting the state of New Mexico's plan for clearing the haze caused by emissions from the San Juan Generating Station, the Environmental Protection Agency issued the final version of its own plan for the coal plant, which requires it to install better pollution controls that reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by a whopping 80 percent.

The goal of the haze rules is to restore air quality in national parks and wilderness areas, or Class 1 areas in regulatory jargon. The San Juan Generating Station is to thank for most of the air pollution that shrouds Mesa Verde. And the pollutants falling under haze regulation also impact public health, causing respiratory ailments and asthma, for example. According to the Summit County Citizens Voice, the San Juan Generating Station and the Four Corners Power Plant nearby are collectively responsible "for at least two-thirds of total nitrogen oxide pollution in San Juan County ... and a quarter of all nitrogen oxide emissions statewide in New Mexico. The American Lung Association has given San Juan County an “F” grade for ozone pollution due to the number of days each year that it surpasses levels of ozone concentrations that the ALA considers unhealthy."

Environmentalists are praising the EPA's crackdown on the generating station, and hoping it's a sign of more tough rules to come. As the Citizens Voice reports: "There are decades-old plants with major pollution problems in more than 40 other states that will face similar decisions on pollution upgrades in the coming year or two."

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.

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