Sharif: Speak up for stronger haze pollution protection

Our national parks and wildlife refuges are American treasures that have long provided memories and adventures for many locals and visitors to Texas. But thick smog from haze pollution is clouding our state’s remarkable vistas and dramatically reducing visibility. Hikers like me who enjoy trekking Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountain national parks can forget taking scenic selfies — that is, unless they want a heavy gray filter added. No one wants to Instagram that.

What these hikers can do, however, is tell the Environmental Protection Agency they don’t want haze to cloud the horizon. Next month, the EPA is holding hearings in Austin and Oklahoma City for this purpose, where I plan to testify alongside many other supporters — property owners near Big Bend, tourism and national park employees, health professionals, faith leaders, parents and more.

As a conservation organizer for the Sierra Club, I know there’s a lot more at stake when it comes to haze pollution. For years, the state of Texas has been releasing alarming amounts of haze pollution into the air, with more than 365,500 tons of sulfur dioxide emitted in 2013 alone, according to federal Environmental Protection Agency data. This is a serious public health threat. Some doctors liken exposure to sulfur dioxide on bad air days to getting a sunburn on your lungs.

Coal plants in Texas emit more pollution than coal plants in any other state, but our pollution blows over state lines into Oklahoma and Arkansas, affecting their wilderness areas and obstructing views. Even though the Clean Air Act requires states to address haze pollution, the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality submitted a do-nothing plan in 2009 that wouldn’t have cleared the skies over Big Bend for another 140 years. The plan did not put any pollution controls on a single coal plant.

Our great state is known for its “Don’t Mess With Texas” swagger, but the truth is, Texas has a responsibility to clean up its own mess when it comes to haze pollution.

The good news is the EPA has recently rejected that plan and proposed to cut Texas’ coal-burning pollution by more than 228,000 tons, almost two-thirds of the total amount of sulfur dioxide emitted by all the state’s power plants. This will protect natural visibility in our beloved parks and refuges, and it’s an important protection for our health. The EPA’s new regional haze rule is what is driving people to testify next month and provide comments through February: We want clean, visible air.

In addition to protecting our health, safeguards on haze pollution will also protect local tourism and community economies. Big Bend National Park, among other parks and wilderness areas, is an economic engine that keeps hundreds of rural Texans working. According to a National Park Service report, Big Bend National Park was home to more than 300,000 recreation visits in 2013. Across the country, park visitors spent an estimated $14.6 billion in local gateway regions while visiting National Park Service lands. Strong EPA protections on haze pollution ensure that our parks keep working for our communities, preserving the natural legacy.

As a Texan, I love our big sky country, but I don’t love that the sky contains the biggest sources of air pollution in the country. Thanks to the EPA, I can look forward to getting our big sky back and cleaning up Big Bend while we’re at it. I can also look forward to Texas becoming a better neighbor to Oklahoma and Arkansas, helping us to breathe easier and to see our national parks and wildlife areas more clearly. All these colorful gems deserve a better filter than grayscale.

Sharif is an organizer for the Sierra Club.

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