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North Dakota regulators, US park officials at odds over state's air quality controls

North Dakota consistently meets all air quality standards, and state officials project it will meet its haze reduction goals. But the National Park Service says the state is a major polluter and should do more to control emissions.

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A blazing red sunset descends in the smoke-filled western sky on Saturday, July 31, 2021.
David Samson / The Forum
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BISMARCK — North Dakota is on track to meet its goals in reducing haze, state environmental regulators say, so they suggest no additional smokestack controls should be required even in the face of emissions from significant oil and gas activity and coal-fired power generation.

The North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality has released a draft plan to meet stair-stepping standards on a trajectory of improvements aimed at eliminating man-made causes of haze by 2064.

Since 2002, total emissions from coal-powered electricity generation plants in North Dakota were reduced by 102,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, or 72%, and 41,600 tons of nitrogen oxide, down 55%, the state said in a draft report that is subject to public comment and later will be sent to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“North Dakota is currently projected to meet its 2028 visibility goals and is projected to remain on track to meet the 2064 visibility goals,” the draft report said, adding that additional controls it evaluated will not have a “meaningful impact” on the 2028 projections.

“Therefore, the Department determined that it is not reasonable to require additional controls during this planning period,” the report said.

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But the National Park Service, which was invited to comment on the draft report, urged North Dakota environmental regulators to require additional emissions controls and said the state is a major air polluter.

“Of all states North Dakota has the biggest influence over haze” on National Park Service protected areas, including Theodore Roosevelt National Park, according to a park service analysis, air quality specialist David Pohlman said in comments by the National Park Service.

“Emissions from North Dakota ... are significant across the region and specifically contribute to regional haze at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota as well as Badlands and Wind Cave National Parks in South Dakota,” Pohlman said.

The National Park Service contended that North Dakota regulators “generally inflated costs associated with controls” and did not consider options the park service concluded are viable.

Specifically, the park service asked North Dakota to consider steps to reduce haze-causing emissions from the oil and gas industry.

“NPS research indicates that oil and gas emissions contribute to visibility impairment at Theodore Roosevelt National Park,” which is surrounded by oil wells, Pohlman said.

“Emissions from oil and gas sources in the North Dakota portion of the Williston Basin are the highest in the Western Regional Air Partnership region, and are projected to increase rather than decrease,” he added.

The National Park Service is encouraging North Dakota to follow other states in implementing state- or region-wide rules addressing nitrous oxide emissions to reduce haze.

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Trends in visibility impairment in North Dakota have shown improvement on the most-impaired days since 2000, but measurements since 2016 show an increase in haze at Theodore Roosevelt, Badlands and Wind Cave national parks, Pohlman said.

“This highlights the need for continuing progress in reducing haze-causing emissions during this planning period,” he said.

The U.S. Forest Service is urging North Dakota to require additional haze controls and said small improvements are essential in reaching the 2064 goal of restoring natural haze conditions.

“It appears that North Dakota is not considering cost effective controls at several facilities based solely on the argument that source contributions do not significantly impact overall visibility improvements and are therefore not reasonable,” Leanne Marten, a regional forester based in Missoula, Montana, wrote. “Cost effective controls should be considered regardless of the source’s individual, or combined, impact to visibility.”

The North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality said North Dakota is meeting all nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, small particle and ozone standards at both units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Lostwood Wildlife Refuge Wilderness Area, Bismarck and Fargo from 2000 through 2020, the period covered in the study.

“Trends show ambient monitor concentrations have remained stable or declined since the early 2000s,” the report said, “indicating recent developmental activity in North Dakota has not adversely affected the air quality” in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Lostwood and other air-monitoring locations.

“North Dakota anticipates these monitoring trends will continue,” but the state will continue to monitor and report progress, the report said.

The amount of light reduction that would be prevented by additional controls would be negligible, said David Stroh, an environmental engineer who works on air quality for the Department of Environmental Quality.

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“We would get an imperceptible visibility improvement,” he said. “We thought it was unnecessary to require those costs.”

North Dakota claims there are “insignificant impacts” from the state on out-of-state haze-protected areas.

Jason Rohrer, president of the Lignite Energy Council, issued a statement underscoring the point that North Dakota meets all air quality standards, and highlighting the economic importance of the lignite coal-fired power industry to the state.

“The North Dakota power industry creates thousands of jobs and provides billions in economic benefit, and it does that while protecting the environment," Rohrer said. "In the last decade, North Dakota power plants have invested over $2 billion in emission controls.

"As a result, North Dakota is currently well ahead of schedule in meeting EPA’s visibility targets. The state also remains one of only a handful of states to have never violated EPA’s health-based ambient air quality standards. We urge the Environmental Protection Agency to recognize the state’s authority and discretion by approving the state’s implementation plan.”  

Evaluating North Dakota’s updated regional haze plan is a process that will take several years, Stroh said.

In the first step of its review, the Environmental Protection Agency will do a completeness determination to see if North Dakota’s plan meets all of the statutory requirements. The next phase could result in a federal implementation plan, or state and federal officials could work to resolve their differences.

If the EPA disapproves North Dakota’s plan, the state can appeal, as it once did, ultimately winning approval for its plan in court.

“We’ll know more as this process unfolds,” Stroh said. North Dakota has proposed requiring “best available reduction technology” for Coal Creek Station. “They’ve already done the work,” he said.

How to comment

The North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality will accept in-person oral testimony from the public on its air pollution control plan at a hearing beginning at 9 a.m. on May 31 at its offices at 4201 Normandy St., Bismarck. The public may also listen online at www.deq.nd.gov/AQ/planning/RegHaze.aspx .

The Department of Environmental Quality will accept written comments until June 1. Address comments to James L. Semerad, Division of Air Quality, North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality, 4201 Normandy St., Bismarck, 58503. Comments also can be emailed to airquality@nd.gov .

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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