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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Clearing Grand Canyon Air

Air Date: Week of

Efforts are being proposed to clean up the air and increase visibility at one of North America's most famous vistas; the Grand Canyon. George Hardeen reports on the goals of the Grand Canyon Visibility Transport Commission.


CURWOOD: After 5 years of discussions a special commission set up to address air pollution over the Grand Canyon and 15 other western parks has released its recommendations. As George Hardeen reports, the proposal is long on vision but short on substance.

(Motor engines)

BOWMAN: What we're doing with this is we're measuring the aerosol particles that are in the air, which are what cause the visibility problem.

HARDEEN: Although he's more than 200 miles from Phoenix, every day Carl Bowman measures urban pollutants at remote testing stations like this one in Grand Canyon National Park.

BOWMAN: Our first line is just to document it, which we do with an automated camera. Just takes 3 pictures a day. Then the second thing we do is use an instrument called a trans-mesometer that actually shoots a beam of light through the air. That tells us how thick the haze is.

HARDEEN: That haze of manmade pollutants now impairs visibility here and at western parks 90% of the time. It limits both the distance one can see and the clarity and crispness of the view. Today, the usually sharp-edged details of the North Rim just 10 miles across the canyon are blurred and indistinct. The haze is a mixture of many sources: carbon monoxide from vehicles, industrial pollutants from urban areas and power plants, dust from unpaved roads, even emissions from lawn mowers and barbecues from cities as far away as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and across the border in Mexico. In 1991, Congress asked the governors of 8 western states, leaders of 4 Indian tribes, and 4 Federal agencies to propose remedies to the problem. After 5 years the group has come up with 4 major goals. Reduce sulfur dioxide levels from power plants by 70% within 45 years, cut tailpipe emissions within 5 years, provide economic incentives for renewable energy and conservation, and improve management of planned forest fires. But the Commission's report doesn't dictate the means to achieve these goals.

LEVITT: This is in fact not a regulatory document.

HARDEEN: Utah Governor Mike Levitt, the Commission's co-chairman, says the report allows western states and tribes to come up with their own solutions.

LEVITT: That's the goal here is to establish a set of consistent objectives that we have all established and a pattern to follow. This is a flexible document that in time will I believe be changed in positive ways, but it's a start.

HARDEEN: Environmental groups are also encouraged. Rob Smith of the Sierra Club says that this is a promise to clean up the air.

SMITH: The first most obvious thing to do is to take steps to clean up the Mojave Power Plant, which has no pollution controls on it at all, and is a huge industrial polluter in Nevada just upwind from the Grand Canyon. If we can do that, then we can show that something really came of this process and this is a process that can work.

HARDEEN: It will take the EPA 18 months to incorporate the recommendations into its regional haze regulations. But the air over the Grand Canyon won't be cleaned up until well into the next century. For Living on Earth, I'm George Hardeen.



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