A conservation group is urging the Environmental Protection Agency to tighten its air quality regulations on power plants to protect such places as Mammoth Cave National Park.

The National Parks Conservation Association said the EPA’s plans to exempt certain older coal plants – including Western Kentucky Energy’s plant near Henderson – from installing the “Best Available Retrofit Technology” would be harmful for the park.

The NPCA is an independent membership organization that works “to protect and enhance America’s national parks for present and future generations,” according to its mission statement posted on its website.

The exemption at the plants would result in the emission of 243 percent more nitrogen oxides “than the best pollution controls would allow,” according to the group’s report, which was released this month.

The report indicates those pollutants can cause health issues and hazy skies. Nitrogen and volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight combine to form ozone, which over the years has been a problem for the park.

“But over the last four or five years, we’ve really seen a decline in our ozone levels,” said Bobby Carson, acting chief of science and resource management for the park.

In terms of public health risks, things have gotten much better. “But we still need to work on ozone for the good of public welfare,” Carson said. “We have some 30 native species in the park that are sensitive to ozone. So we are still seeing plants damaged by ozone.”

Ozone and fine particles left in some industrial and power plant emissions also affect the haze in the park, and excessive nitrogen also can cause problems in other respects to the park’s plant life, according to Carson.

“It acts as fertilizer and in areas that have been damaged by the ice storm or other things, the nitrogen fertilizes those exotic species and gives them a leg up on the native species,” he said.

Thomas Shaw, manager of environmental and technical services for Western Kentucky Energy, said the plants are in compliance with regulations as they stand now and that the plant hasn’t sought an exemption from BART.

“It’s hard to say whether or not we would be in compliance with any future (regulations) because we don’t know what they are,” Shaw said.

The two power plants in question are south of Henderson and provide power for nearby electric cooperatives, so they are relatively small. 

The conservation report estimated that 211 asthma attacks and 1,561 lost work days in 2010 could be attributed to emissions from those facilities.

Shaw said he was not familiar with the contents of the report and could not comment on it specifically.

The impact of those plants was relatively small, compared to other power plants listed in the report. One plant for Duke Energy was thought to be responsible for 17,174 missed work days and 2,294 asthma attacks.

One of this region’s nearby power producers in Paradise isn’t on the list of plants threatening Mammoth Cave. That could be because Tennessee Valley Authority has already been working to improve the technology of its plants, Carson said.

Through 2011, the power provider spent $5.4 billion on emissions controls at all of its plants. The scrubbers, which help filter air from emissions, are due to be upgraded at two of the three units at Paradise no later than the end of this year, according to its website. All three of the units already have a catalytic reduction system that reduces nitrogen emissions.

— To access the full report, go to www.npca.org/news/reports/cleaning-up-the-haze.html.

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