- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—Millions of vacationers escape to national parks each summer to take in the fresh air and scenic vistas.

But a report released Tuesday by a conservation group finds that some of the nation’s most treasured landscapes are plagued with polluted air and hazy skies — and remain decades behind schedule in restoring visibility.

The report by the National Parks Conservation Assn. flunked four national parks in California — Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Joshua Tree and Yosemite — giving them F grades for having levels of ozone that are unhealthy for visitors during the busy summer season.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon topped the list with the worst air quality in the nation.

The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group used government monitoring data to assign letter grades to each of the 48 national parks that are supposed to have the best air quality in the nation and are subject to special protections under the Clean Air Act. The report assessed each park according to its levels of haze and ozone — a lung-damaging pollutant in smog — and how it has been affected by climate change, including rising temperatures and shifts in precipitation.

Three-quarters of the parks, which were analyzed using data from 2008 to 2012, had ozone levels that were “moderate” or worse, according to the federal government’s Air Quality Index, the report found.

All 48 of the national parks have been degraded by haze pollution, which is made up of particles and gases that scatter light and limit how far you can see. On average, haze at national parks blocks 50 miles of scenery from view. Visibility is worse at Sequoia and Kings Canyon, where visitors should be able to see 90 miles farther than they can, the report found.

At the current pace of pollution reduction, many parks are far behind schedule in meeting federal deadlines to restore clarity to their skies, according to the report.

To speed progress, the report recommends strengthening the federal regulation governing air quality in national parks, known as the regional haze rule.

The rule, adopted in 1999 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, requires states to develop and carry out plans to reduce air pollution that impairs visibility in more than 150 national parks and wilderness areas. But loopholes and gray areas allow coal-fired power plants and other polluters to get by with inadequate emissions-cutting measures, the report says.

“Our analysis shows [the rule is] really too flexible and lacks benchmarks to hold states accountable,” said Ulla Reeves, manager of the National Parks Conservation Assn.’s clean air campaign. “If the regional haze rule is not improved, in 50 years only 10% of our national parks that are required to have clean air will actually have it.”

In a statement, the U.S. EPA said, “We will continue to assess and improve the Regional Haze program,” and will review the report’s assessment of visibility conditions in national parks.

“States are currently implementing plans designed to address visibility-reducing pollution,” the statement said. In the eastern U.S., visibility on the haziest days improved by an average of 25% between 2000 and 2012, according to the EPA.

The federal government has set a deadline of restoring visibility to natural levels by 2064. But the latest projections show many national parks are off-track by decades, or even centuries.

In Joshua Tree, for instance, natural visibility is not expected to return until 2106.

For more news on air quality and the environment, follow me @tonybarboza

UPDATE

7:26 a.m.: This article has been updated to include comments from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

This article originally published at 3:15 a.m.

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