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New Consent Decree Aims to Reduce Haze at National Parks

A new agreement between the federal government and environmental groups will put limits on some power plants that blow pollution into Kentucky. The move is designed to reduce haze and air pollution at many of the country’s oldest national parks, including Mammoth Cave.

Power plants and factories in nearby Illinois, Indiana and Ohio are all affected by the consent decree, which was issued by a district court judge late last week. The agreement sets deadlines for those states—as well as 34 others—to reduce the air pollution that causes haze in national parks.

David Baron is an attorney for non-profit Earthjustice.

“The Clean Air Act required all of these plans to clean up haze to be done by December 2007, and most states didn’t do that,” he said. “And when the states continued to fail and EPA didn’t step in, we filed a lawsuit that requires some action and that’s what lead to this consent decree.”

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Environment In-Depth News Local News

For National Parks, Pollution, Confusion


On the outer edge of the forest, Mammoth Cave National Park’s air quality manager Bob Carson shows off an elaborate monitoring station. In this fenced-off clearing, two humble-looking sheds house super-sensitive pollution detectors. One keeps tabs on how much soot—or particulate matter– is in the air. Carson says the instruments tell him not only how much particulate matter is in the air but what’s in that matter.

“Today is a sampling day. We measure particulate matter in the air one in three days. So every three days we get a 24-hour sample,” says CarsonA look inside a device that captures particulate matter from a jar outside.

Mammoth Cave has some of the worst air quality, and worst visibility, of any national park in the country. Some forty coal-fired power plants operate within 200 miles of the park. These plants not only put out soot, but greenhouse gases and the neurotoxin, mercury. Carson says it’s the soot that makes skies so hazy over the park, especially in summer. A camera snaps shots over the park every day. And he can see just how the haze blurs tree-lined ridges, washes out colors. In the other shed, he explains how we know this soot creates the haze problem: these particles scatter light.

“We use this device to measure the particles that are scattering light. And we use that number to calculate our visual range, give us a mechanical visual range number in miles of what you can expect to see,” Carson says.

Carson says visibility hasn’t gotten any worse or any better over the past several years. But one attempt to improve it—for all national parks–came from the 1999 “haze rule.” Bruce Polkowsky is with the National Park Service’s air resources division. He helped write the rule.

Towers collecting visibility, other pollutant information.“What the act actually says is the states must do what is reasonable to improve visibility. It established a long-term goal to return these designated areas to ‘natural’ conditions,” Polkowsky says.

Polkowski says the haze rule instructed states to make sure older power plants installed the best available technology to control emissions. And every ten years states have to assess their progress and file a plan to maintain it with the EPA. The first round plans are due now. But Polkowski says there’s a hold up—another rule that throws the haze rule into question. It’s the Clean Air Interstate Rule, or CAIR. The idea behind CAIR was to tackle pollution as a regional problem. If states joined the program, they had to reduce overall emissions from utilities, not individual plants. Again, Bruce Polkowsky.

“What the Clean Air Interstate Rule said is we’re doing such a massive reduction across the whole utility sector, that we’re just going to go ahead and say if your state implements the Clean Air Interstate Rule, and you do everything under that rule correctly, you, state, do not have to address best available retrofit technology for your utility sector,” Polkowsky says.

In other words, the Clean Air Interstate Rule trumped the haze rule. If you join CAIR, you don’t have to retrofit old plants. That is, until a judge threw CAIR out.Particulate matter filters.

“Most of the southeastern states have already adopted their regulations assuming that because they joined CAIR, their utilities were fine. They didn’t have to go back and look at who was built when and what their control technologies are. They just said, we’re part of CAIR, we’re done. Now, that’s all in question,” says Polkowsky.

With the Clean Air Interstate Rule up in the air, states—and parks—are in a holding pattern with air quality plans. No one knows whether CAIR could be reinstated. With all the uncertainty, many states are lagging behind on turning in their haze plans. And the National Parks Conservation Association has sued the EPA over the stragglers. Spokesman Mark Wenzler says they want to make sure states move forward, regardless of the regulatory limbo. He says Kentucky’s plan has been submitted. Now it needs to be implemented.

More instruments at Mammoth Cave to measure mercury and other pollutants in the air.“There’s a huge impact in Mammoth Cave. It’s one of the most polluted parks in the country. And so what we’re really looking to do is speed up the process of starting to clean up the worst offenders around Mammoth Cave to restore clean air to the park,” Wenzler says.

But even the haze rule Wenzler hopes states will take action on could be called into question. The Washington Post just reported that the EPA is close to changing it. Some fear the change could weaken protections for air quality in parks that are already suffering.

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Environment In-Depth News

Cave Ecosystems Improve; Groundwater Still Vulnerable


Tour guide Nancy Toney leads a group down into Horse Cave in the south-central town of Horse Cave, Kentucky. She points over a railing at one of the two rivers tumbling below.

“And this is the river that the sewage treatment plant was dumping the sewage into, through that sinkhole. So the water you see would have been black, those rocks would have been black, you would have been able to see clusters of blood worms hanging to all of the rocks,” Toney says.
Inside Horse Cave
Today the rivers run clear and clean. And the eyeless white crayfish that disappeared when pollution was killing the cave have made their way back. But it’s been a long haul.

Humans have been leaving their mark on caves for thousands of years. We’ve sheltered in them, told our stories on their walls. In the prohibition-era 1920s, locals even created an entire subterranean nightclub in one of Hidden Cave’s deep-set caverns—complete with orchestra and dance floor. But it wasn’t until recently that people understood that what goes into a cave can come out the other end—with consequences.

“They’re not just simply holes in the ground…”

This is David Foster. He’s head of the American cave conservation association, which is headquartered right above Hidden Cave.

“They’re holes that evolved because rain water was moving through sinkholes and dissolving them and widening them and opening them. And that rain water has to go somewhere. It doesn’t just seep into the ground and continue to the center of the earth. It comes back out in the form of springs.”

Foster says that if you contaminate a cave system, you contaminate the springs that emerge from the cave. And because those springs feed our rivers and streams, you’re ultimately contaminating the water we depend on for drinking. Beneath about 40% of Kentucky’s lands is a geological formation called karst. It’s basically limestone that water can easily dissolve—splitting open cracks, forming sinkholes, and eventually caves. Karst doesn’t remove impurities from the water. It lets it pass right through. So Foster says that when he arrived in Horse Cave 20 years ago, run off from homes and industry had taken their toll on the cave.

Walkway inside Horse Cave“What we had was an open sewer, right in the middle of town,” Foster says.

And the pollution was edging its way into the nearby and better known Mammoth Cave system. But money from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service helped build a regional sewer treatment system that went online in 1989. The cave got cleaner. But other groundwater contaminants were still causing problems.

“Whenever it would rain, we would smell a gasoline odor. And then we went through a period where the EPA had a program where they were removing all the underground storage tanks that had been leaking. And after that got done, we almost never had that problem,” said Foster.

After years of environmental clean up, the cave’s ecosystem has come back. But it will always be a delicate balance. With few species depending on each other in this rare, sun-less environment, it’s easy to tip the scales. Rick Toomey heads Mammoth Cave’s science and learning center. He says that for example aquatic cave animals rely on the organic material in water that backs up from the Green River or from groundwater that seeps into the cave.

“The cave fish, the cave shrimp, the cave crayfish, these organisms eat the organic material itself, or the organic material gets in the cave and grows bacterial slime. We’re very much dependent on that,” Toomey says.

But they’re also vulnerable for that same reason, because in with that organic material could also come toxins, poisons, pollution.

“Household run off is still potentially an issue. It’s still an agricultural area. We have to make sure we work with people on best management practices, trying to reduce the amount of chemical usage,” said Toomey.

Scientists at both Mammoth Cave and Horse cave monitor groundwater constantly. But caves without national protection or vigilant conservation—caves all over Kentucky—are often still neglected.

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Local News

Cave Ecosystems Improve, Groundwater Still Vulnerable

Listen to the story.

Tour guide Nancy Toney leads a group down into Horse cave in the south-central town of Horse Cave, Kentucky.  She points over a railing at one of the two rivers tumbling below.

“And this is the river that the sewage treatment plant was dumping the sewage into, through that sinkhole.  So the water you see would have been black, those rocks would have been black, you would have been able to see clusters of blood worms hanging to all of the rocks,” Toney says.

Today the rivers run clear and clean.  And the eyeless white crayfish that disappeared when pollution was killing the cave have made their way back.  But it’s been a long haul.

Humans have been leaving their mark on caves for thousands of years.  We’ve sheltered in them, told our stories on their walls with paints.  In the prohibition-era 1920s, locals even created an entire subterranean nightclub in one of Hidden Cave’s deep-set caverns—complete with orchestra and dance floor.  But it wasn’t until recently that people understood that what goes into a cave can come out the other end—with consequences.

“They’re not just simply holes in the ground…”

This is David Foster.  He’s head of the American cave conservation association, which is headquartered right above Hidden Cave.

“They’re holes that evolved because rain water was moving through sinkholes and dissolving them and widening them and opening them. And that rain water has to go somewhere.  It doesn’t just seep into the ground and continue to the center of the earth.  It comes back out in the form of springs,” Foster says.

Foster says that if you contaminate a cave system, you contaminate the springs that emerge from the cave.  And because those springs feed our rivers and streams, you’re ultimately contaminating the water we depend on for drinking.  Beneath about 40% of Kentucky’s lands is a geological formation called karst.  It’s basically limestone that water can easily dissolve—splitting open cracks, forming sinkholes, and eventually caves. Karst doesn’t remove impurities from the water.  It lets it pass right through.  So Foster says that when he arrived in Horse Cave 20 years ago, run off from homes and industry had taken their toll on the cave.

“What we had was an open sewer, right in the middle of town,” says Foster.

And the pollution was edging its way into the nearby and better known Mammoth Cave system. But money from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service helped build a regional sewer treatment system that went online in 1989.  The cave got cleaner.  But other groundwater contaminants were still causing problems.

“Whenever it would rain, we would smell a gasoline odor.  And then we went through a period where the EPA had a program where they were removing all the underground storage tanks that had been leaking.  And after that got done, we almost never had that problem,” says Foster.

After years of environmental clean up, the cave’s ecosystem has come back.  But it will always be a delicate balance.  With few species depending on each other in this rare, sun-less environment, it’s easy to tip the scales.  Rick Toomey heads Mammoth Cave’s science and learning center. He says that for example aquatic cave animals rely on the organic material in water that backs up from the Green River or from groundwater that seeps into the cave.

“The cave fish, the cave shrimp, the cave crayfish, these organisms eat the organic material itself, or the organic material gets in the cave and grows bacterial slime.  We’re very much dependent on that,” says Toomey.

But they’re also vulnerable for that same reason, because in with that organic material could also come toxins, poisons, pollution.

“Household run off is still potentially an issue.  It’s still an agricultural area.  We have to make sure we work with people on best management practices, trying to reduce the amount of chemical usage,” Toomey says.

Scientists at both Mammoth Cave and Horse Cave monitor groundwater constantly.  But caves without national protection or vigilant conservation—caves all over Kentucky—are often still neglected.