EPA-Mandated Regional Haze Plans Open Horizons on Local, State Stories

September 21, 2022
Rocky Mountain National Park in 2015, hazy from forest fires. Regional haze comes from many sources, including wildfires and dust storms. Photo: Simon, Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

TipSheet: EPA-Mandated Regional Haze Plans Open Horizons on Local, State Stories

By Joseph A. Davis

In another of the de-Trumpification moves that we have seen since President Joe Biden entered the White House, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently ordered 15 states to pull up their socks on air pollution. The states had missed a deadline for submitting cleanup plans.

This so-called regional haze program has historically been the neglected stepchild of the Clean Air Act, or CAA. So many other CAA programs center on urgent threats to human health and giant industrial polluters that it may pale by comparison. After all, it’s about beautiful vistas.

This neglect is undeserved. And for environmental reporters, the regional haze program is a goldmine of local and regional stories.


Why it matters

Regional haze is something you can see. So that’s why we talk about it in connection with beautiful vistas.

People rightly associate it with parks, forests and mountains. The regional haze regulatory regime focuses on 156 national parks and wilderness areas such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Mount Rainier, the Shenandoah Valley, the Great Smokies, Acadia and the Everglades.

What is regional haze made of? It’s complex, but it’s mostly particulates — microscopic suspended bits of solid and liquid pollution. These come from many sources and are made of many substances.

But they do indeed affect people’s health. In fact, particulate matter is one of the six pollutants for which the EPA has set health-based primary national air standards.

In the days when acid rain was polluting lakes, particulates were one of the bad guys. These days, you may see regional haze when smoke from wildfires permeates an entire part of the country, making people choke and their eyes sting. And as drought dries the West, dust storms have become a significant factor.

Nonetheless, it turns out that many of the biggest sources of regional haze are industrial and automotive emissions.


The backstory

Under the CAA, the states are the cutting edge of the air pollution regulatory effort.

The mechanism through which the EPA rides herd on states, when it comes to visibility and regional haze, is through state implementation plans, or SIPs — and revisions thereto. The EPA can approve state SIPs, require revisions or take over writing the SIP itself if states do not comply.

The states that did not submit SIP revisions by the EPA’s deadline this year are Alabama, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia.


Regional haze has never been a top federal

priority. … But the key bit of backstory here is

that the Trump EPA downgraded it further.


Regional haze has never been a top federal priority (the EPA did not issue its first Regional Haze Rule until 1999). But the key bit of backstory here is that the Trump EPA downgraded it further. Between 2017 and 2019, the Trump EPA used a “guidance,” and ultimately a rulemaking, that relaxed requirements on the states over regional haze.

After the Biden administration arrived, it eventually put states on notice that it was going to resume more rigorous demands on the states for regional haze reduction. The latest notice to states missing their most recent deadline is part of that effort.


Story ideas

  • Find and review your state’s SIP revisions for regional haze, normally located through your state’s clean air agency.
  • Determine what are the biggest or main emissions sources contributing to regional haze. You may have to talk to state officials to figure that out.
  • What industries contribute the most major emissions? Have they lobbied or taken positions on visibility regulations with state, regional or federal agencies?
  • What are the most important visibility resources in your area? (Hint: if you are near the Grand Canyon, you won’t have to work hard.)
  • How important is the tourism and recreational economy in your area? Has anyone estimated its dollar value? How might visibility affect those and other industries?
  • Have recreation and outdoor industries taken positions on the regional haze plans in your area?


Reporting resources

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 33. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.


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