Air Pollution: Air Quality, Visibility, and the Potential Impacts of Coal-Fired Power Plants on Great Basin National Park, Nevada

GAO-09-788R Published: Jul 27, 2009. Publicly Released: Jul 27, 2009.
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Great Basin National Park encompasses over 77,000 acres of White Pine County in east-central Nevada and is home to diverse geologic, topographic, and wildlife resources--including ancient bristlecone pines, the world's longest living tree species. The park was created to preserve a representative segment of the Great Basin Region and receives about 80,000 visitors annually. The park features numerous scenic areas with views of the surrounding landscape, which includes both deserts and mountains. The National Park Service (NPS), within the Department of the Interior, is responsible for managing the park, and the park's management plan lists both air quality and visibility as outstanding resources. This plan identifies threats to air quality and visibility--including air pollution from the possible development of coal-fired power plants in the region--and states that even slight increases in air pollution could cause major decreases in visibility. In 2004 and 2006, two companies each initiated the process to build new coal-fired power plants about 55 miles northwest of Great Basin National Park, near the city of Ely, Nevada. While the development of these new power plants would provide jobs, needed electric power, and other benefits, they have also drawn attention to the possibility of adversely affecting air quality and visibility in and around the park. However, in early 2009, both companies publicly stated they have indefinitely postponed development of their plants due to environmental, regulatory, and economic uncertainties. Under the Clean Air Act, to protect human health and welfare, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes national air quality standards for six pollutants that specify the allowable level of each pollutant in the ambient air. The six pollutants, also known as criteria pollutants, are carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, lead, and ozone. Coal-fired power plants are major sources of several of these criteria pollutants (i.e., nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter). In addition, nitrogen oxides combine with other chemicals in the air and sunlight to form ozone. EPA increased the stringency oprimary standard for ozone in 2008, changing it from 84 parts per billion to 75 paper billio In addition to the Clean Air Act, the two proposed coal-fired power plants are also subject to requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) because the companies proposed to build their plants on federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). BLM is authorized to issue rights-of-way on federal land for the construction of the plants and, subsequently, to arrange for the sale of the land to the companies. NEPA requires BLM to evaluate the likely effects of the issuance of the rights-of-way using an environmental assessment or, if the environmental effects are likely to be significant, using a more detailed environmental impact statement (EIS). This report responds to a congressional directive in the Joint Explanatory Statement accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2008. The report describes (1) current air quality and visibility in and around Great Basin National Park and (2) stakeholders' views about the potential impacts of the proposed coal-fired power plants on air quality and visibility in and around the park.

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