The White House has announced that President Bush will be celebrating Earth Day tomorrow with a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a location no doubt chosen for its perceived seclusion from environmental activists who may call into question the administration's alarming environmental record.
Bush's fly-in photo-op will be especially ironic given that Great Smoky is the most polluted park in the country, a sad fact for the 800-square-mile preserve that is home to more tree species (130) than all of Northern Europe, and one of the country's most beloved parks.
As the decidedly non-alarmist National Parks Conservation Association points out, the park's richly diverse ecosystem faces a number of threats:
Acid deposition: The Smokies suffer from some of the worst acid-deposition problems in North America. Clouds blanketing the sensitive spruce-fir forests found on Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies, are often as acidic as vinegar. On average, rainfall in the park is five to ten times more acidic than normal rainwater.
Degraded scenic vistas: The spectacular overlooks for which this park is known are severely impaired by human-generated polluted haze. Under natural conditions, views extended for more than 100 miles. Because of air pollution, however, park visitors can expect to see only 25 miles on average.
Ozone pollution: Great Smoky has the highest ozone exposure at levels harmful to plants of any national park in America. Thirty plant species in the park show signs of damage from ozone pollution, including black cherry and yellow poplar. In addition, on more than 175 days since 1998 ozone levels at the park were hazardous to human health.
Mercury pollution: Scientists are concerned about possible levels of mercury deposition, and recently began monitoring this toxic pollutant in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Bush Administration would make all of these problems substantially worse.
Mercury is a dangerous toxin that threatens people and wildlife as a pollutant from coal-fired power plants. The EPA estimates that enforcement of existing toxic air pollution protections in the Clean Air Act will limit mercury pollution to 5 tons per year by 2008. The Bush Administration's plan weakens the limit to 26 tons per year by 2010 - allowing 520 percent more mercury pollution.The focus of Bush's visit to Great Smoky will be to honor the 2,000 some volunteers who have given their time to the park. The park sure needs them -- in a report last year, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees blasted the administration for slashing the budget of park staff and thus threatening the once-revered park system. Among their findings:
Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) is a major contributor to smog that is linked to asthma and lung disease. Current Clean Air Act programs could result in NOx pollution levels of about 1.25 million tons by 2010. But the Bush plan calls for loosening the cap on NOx pollution to 2.1 million tons by 2008 - effectively allowing 68 percent more NOx pollution.
Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) is the major contributor acid rain and soot. Clean Air Act programs could reduce SO2 pollution levels to 2 million tons by 2012. The Bush Administration plan weakens protections to allow 4.5 million tons of SO2 by 2010 - allowing a staggering 225 percent more SO2 pollution.
By the 15th year of the Bush plan: 450,000 more tons of NOx, one million more tons of SO2, and 9.5 more tons of mercury would be allowed than under strong enforcement of existing Clean Air Act programs.
The Bush plan creates a loophole exempting power plants from being held accountable to the Clean Air Act's New Source Review (NSR) standards and from being required to install cleanup technology.
"Clear Skies" delays the enforcement of public health standards for smog and soot until the end of 2015.
The Bush plan restricts the power of states to call for an end to pollution from upwind sources in other states. The plan prohibits any petitions of this sort from even being implemented before 2012.
Budgets were down at eight of the 12 parks; employee levels were reduced at all of the parks; six of the 12 parks already have or will cut visitor center hours; all six of the surveyed historic parks will allow key facilities to further deteriorate without needed maintenance; nine of the 12 parks have made cuts that will result in a reduced experience for visitors; and, most surprisingly, some parks are even cutting vital law enforcement positions needed to protect visitors and natural resources.Unfortunately for Bush, his visit won't escape scrutiny: the Canary Coalition, Appalachian Voices, the Western North Carolina Alliance, Sierra Club, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and other organizations in North Carolina and Tennessee are coordinating a protest to greet him upon arrival.