Fail­ing the state

This is en­vi­ron­men­tal qual­ity? Guest writer

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - GLEN HOOKS Glen Hooks is di­rec­tor of the Arkansas Sierra Club.

Night is day. Up is down. War is peace. And the Arkansas Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity is us­ing our tax dol­lars to fight against cleaner air for our state.

For more than a decade, the Arkansas Sierra Club has been push­ing our state to fol­low the law and clean up power-plant emis­sions that foul our parks and wilder­ness ar­eas. The Re­gional Haze Rule, passed in 1999, re­quires states to re­duce vis­i­ble air pol­lu­tion, oth­er­wise known as haze, and im­prove vis­i­bil­ity in places like the Up­per Buf­falo and Caney Creek wilder­ness ar­eas.

In 2011, sev­eral years af­ter the dead­line, the state Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity sub­mit­ted to the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency a haze-re­duc­tion plan that was par­tially ap­proved and par­tially dis­ap­proved, and sent back for more work. Even with the op­por­tu­nity to con­tinue draft­ing its plan, the depart­ment made an af­fir­ma­tive de­ci­sion to not do so — that de­ci­sion, by law, re­quired the EPA to write a fed­eral plan for Arkansas. When EPA failed to meet its dead­line for writ­ing its plan for Arkansas, the Sierra Club suc­cess­fully sued in fed­eral court to force EPA to do its duty.

The re­sult of this suit? EPA an­nounced a draft plan, held a pub­lic hear­ing, re­ceived hun­dreds of com­ments from Arkansas ci­ti­zens on the plan, and is­sued a fi­nal plan in 2016. The plan promised sig­nif­i­cant re­duc­tions in air pol­lu­tion from the two largest sources of air pol­lu­tion in Arkansas, En­tergy’s White Bluff and In­de­pen­dence power plants. Th­ese plants are among the largest in the en­tire coun­try that lack mod­ern tech­nol­ogy to re­duce smog and other harm­ful pol­lu­tants.

Un­der the plan, th­ese old, dirty coal-burn­ing power plants would in­stall mod­ern pol­lu­tion con­trols no later than 2021. By dra­mat­i­cally re­duc­ing air pol­lu­tion that harms peo­ple’s health, the plan would pre­vent more than 137 pre­ma­ture deaths, 4,000 asthma at­tacks, and 19,000 lost work and school days ev­ery year, sav­ing more than $1.36 bil­lion an­nu­ally in pub­lic health costs and lost pro­duc­tiv­ity.

Sounds like a good plan, right? Cleaner air, bet­ter pub­lic health, more vis­i­bil­ity in our Arkansas parks, and adding pol­lu­tion con­trols to ag­ing power plants that can’t com­pete in to­day’s en­ergy mar­ket. Who wouldn’t want that?

An­swer: The Arkansas Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity, the arm of our state govern­ment that, ac­cord­ing to its web­site, is “charged with pre­vent­ing, con­trol­ling, and abat­ing pol­lu­tion that could harm Arkansas’ valu­able nat­u­ral re­sources.”

The Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity has joined forces with En­tergy in an ef­fort to block the haze-re­duc­tion plan in fed­eral court. Let that sink in for a mo­ment. We have the Nat­u­ral State’s en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion team spend­ing Arkansas tax dol­lars to team up with a pol­lut­ing util­ity to fight against an ef­fort to clean up the Nat­u­ral State. Not only are they seek­ing to over­turn the haze-re­duc­tion plan in court, the agency is seek­ing to re­place the plan with a much weaker state plan of its own.

Even in a time when a new out­rage is around ev­ery cor­ner, this is ab­so­lutely mad­den­ing. The haze-re­duc­tion plan is lit­er­ally a decade over­due be­cause of de­lay af­ter de­lay, re­sult­ing in a decade of ad­di­tional and un­nec­es­sary pol­lu­tion for Arkansans. Now, af­ter the plan is com­plete, the Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity wants to write a new, weaker plan that will re­sult in still more de­lay—and in weaker haze re­duc­tions.

Arkansans de­serve much, much bet­ter than an En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity depart­ment that is un­con­cerned with re­duc­ing pol­lu­tion. It is beyond out­ra­geous that Arkansans who want clean air and wilder­ness ar­eas are be­ing ac­tively op­posed by the one depart­ment specif­i­cally charged with pro­tect­ing our en­vi­ron­ment. The depart­ment is not an arm of our state’s util­i­ties and in­dus­trial pol­luters. The Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity’s en­tire “rea­son for be­ing” is stated right there in its name.

The Arkansas Sierra Club is com­mit­ted to pro­tect­ing our state’s air, water, forests, and spe­cial places. Our “rea­son for be­ing” is to serve as a check on those who would harm our health and re­sources. We are used to fight­ing against those in in­dus­try who are ir­re­spon­si­bly en­dan­ger­ing our great state — but hav­ing to fight our own Arkansas Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity is frankly sick­en­ing.

There is still time to cor­rect this er­ro­neous course of ac­tion and serve Arkansans prop­erly. We call on those to whom our Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Qual­ity an­swers — namely, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the Pol­lu­tion Con­trol and Ecol­ogy Com­mis­sion — to strongly re­mind the agency of its core mis­sion and to or­der it to drop its op­po­si­tion to re­duc­ing smog in our parks.

In a time of deep di­vi­sions, Arkansas’ air qual­ity is an is­sue that should unite us all.


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