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Know the West

Will Western skies be clear enough?



A coalition of 12 Western states and 10 Indian tribes has a plan to clean the air over the Colorado Plateau. But critics think the Western Regional Air Partnership's plan is too soft.

The agreement, now before the Environmental Protection Agency, would bring Western states into compliance with the Clean Air Act, which protects the Grand Canyon and 15 other parks and wilderness areas on the Colorado Plateau. Haze has been thickening in the region largely due to sulfur dioxide from coal-burning power plants, and officials have been trying for a comprehensive solution for years (HCN, 6/24/96: Pact promises cleaner canyon air).

Beginning in 2003, the plan would set target pollution levels for the entire region and reduce sulfur dioxide by 20 percent over 15 years. The plan relies on power plants to clean up voluntarily; should the region not meet its target level, individual companies would be assigned pollution curbs. Companies above an assigned level could either reduce emissions or buy pollution permits from cleaner companies.

Patrick Cummins, co-program manager for the Western Regional Air Partnership, lauds the plan, saying it allows power companies some flexibility to grow with the West's population while meeting future EPA mandates.

"This is the first program of this kind in the country," Cummins says. "As a region we are way out in front on this issue."

Although environmental groups worked with the coalition on the proposal, several, such as the Arizona-based Grand Canyon Trust and the National Parks Conservation Association, argue it will be ineffective. Rick Moore of Grand Canyon Trust says the plan would undermine nearly a decade of environmental work. He would like to see emissions drop 39 percent by 2018.

The EPA has a year to evaluate the plan.