Air quality casts pall over Michigan national parks
By ERIC FREEDMAN
Special to the Journal
LANSING — Summer vacation season is upon us, with camping, hiking and other outdoor activities. For some of us, that means visiting remote locations in the Great Lakes region, such as Isle Royale National Park, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
Still others set their GPS for historic locales such River Raisin National Battlefield Park in Monroe and Keweenaw National Historic Park in the western Upper Peninsula.
Wherever you’re heading, there are air pollution problems, according to a new report by the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
The association examined air pollution at 417 National Park Service properties and concluded that 96% of them “are plagued by significant air pollution problems in at least one of four categories”: unhealthy air, harm to nature, haze pollution and climate change.
“Many parks suffer from the negative effects of air pollution in more than one of these categories,” it said, adding that climate change and air pollution adversely affect almost all national parks, with “fossil fuels and industrial air pollution” as the primary contributors to the problem.
The report said, “While most air pollution doesn’t originate in national parks, it can travel hundreds of miles from its source, thereby affecting all parks — even remote ones — and distant communities.”
Superintendent Scott Tucker at Sleeping Bear Dunes said air-borne nitrogen from Milwaukee and Green Bay along the western coast of Lake Michigan is part of the problem at his park.
“Even last summer we had visibility issues from wildfires in the West. It was pretty noticeable” during the filming of a new orientation movie, he said.
Senior meteorologist Jim Heywood of the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy also cites interstate transportation of emissions. Monitoring by the department’s Air Quality Division in the U.P.’s Seney National Wildlife Refuge found ozone emissions from Chicago and Northwest Indiana that made their way across Lake Michigan via southwest and southerly winds.
A 2015 Park Service air quality summary for Sleeping Bear Dunes said, “Human health risk from ground-level ozone warrants significant concern” and said ozone concentrations were relatively unchanged from 2006 levels. During that period, the summary showed improvement in the risk to plant life from ground-level ozone and in visibility.
However, the chief of science and resource stewardship at Pictured Rocks, Bruce Leutscher, questioned the data, saying the report “didn’t do a good job of telling just where they got all their data from.”
“We don’t have any local air quality monitoring stations” in the park, he said. The closest is at Seney, so “we must be grouped in with others in the region.”
Leutscher said, “On the ground here at Pictured Rocks, we don’t notice or perceive or get any reports about air pollution.” For example, there have been no complaints about smog affecting the vistas in recent years. And “I don’t notice any ozone damage at ground level.”
A study about seven or eight years ago did find higher levels of mercury in the water in the Munising area, the result of airborne pollutants carried from the south and southwest, he said.
In its report, the National Parks Conservation Association said, “Today, air pollution is on the rise, enforcement actions against polluters have plummeted by 85%, the Environmental Protection Agency is pushing an anti-science agenda and the United States is exiting the Paris Agreement, the global climate treaty.”
The Associated Press recently reported, “Around the country, the EPA under Trump is delegating a widening range of public health and environmental enforcement to states, saying local officials know best how to deal with local problems. Critics contend federal regulators are making a dangerous retreat on enforcement that puts people and the environment at greater risk. One administration initiative would give states more authority over emissions from coal-fired power plants.”
While the Trump administration has relaxed environmental regulations and proposes further relaxations, Heywood noted, “you hear about loosening” of federal regulations, but “we haven’t seen that in permitting” for air emissions. And the trend over the past 20 years shows “things are consistently getting better.”
Here’s the association’s assessment of sites in Michigan:
Isle Royale National Park: “significant concern” about nature and climate, and “moderate concern” about visibility and health.
Keweenaw National Historic Park: “significant concern about nature and climate; “moderate concern” about visibility and health.
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore: “significant concern” about health, nature and climate; “moderate concern” about visibility.
River Raisin National Battlefield Park: “significant concern” about nature; “moderate concern” about health and visibility; “little to no concern” about climate.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore “significant concern” about health, nature and climate; “moderate concern” about visibility.