Big Bend's Vanishing Point

Clearing the air over the queen of Texas parks

The same view, on different days: Big Bend's declining air quality makes a huge difference.
<br>Photo courtesy National Park Service
The same view, on different days: Big Bend's declining air quality makes a huge difference.
Photo courtesy National Park Service

The matriarch of Texas parks, Big Bend National Park is renowned for its immense mountains, gigantic canyons, and endless vistas. Well, two out of three ain't bad.

Due to a relentless blanket of haze, scenery at this West Texas treasure is suffering from a serious visibility shortage, say the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service. The two agencies' recently released collaborative BRAVO (Big Bend Regional Aerosol and Visibility Observational) report shows pollution worsening at the Bend. Yet, though these federal entities have made the case, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's cloudy judgment hasn't produced any results. To combat this, the Austin branch of Environmental Defense and a newly launched Web site, www.clearbigbendair.org, aim to make the facts clear.

The Bend's haze is basically a hanging layer of particulate emissions. Forged in smokestacks, particulates are the pollutant's minuscule remnants. Their small size keeps them airborne, where they accumulate, causing haze. On those days when the haze is worst – when the average visible distance is 40 miles, compared to 120 – the culprit is sulfate particles, creating 55% of the haze. Aside from obscuring those breathtaking views, particulate emissions like sulfate make it harder to take a breath, period. Fine-particle pollution is responsible for increased incidence of childhood asthma, decreased life expectancy, and – according to the environmental group Clear the Air – some 1,160 preventable deaths in Texas alone.

With particle haze decreasing not only life expectancy, but possible tourism dollars as well, the TCEQ's lack of reaction is puzzling. Material from Environmental Defense maps a history of foot-dragging as long and winding as a hike through the Chisos Mountains. As part of the state's 1987 protection plan for Big Bend, it was decided "to secure emission reductions from Texas sources if they were found in the future to affect visibility." Yet in the five-plus years since a 1999 report confirmed the culpability of Texas power plants for Big Bend's haze, TCEQ has taken no corrective action. Environmental Defense is hoping that the TCEQ will finally say BRAVO to Texas parks.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Air Quality, Big Bend National Park, BRAVO, EPA, National Park Service, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, TCEQ, Environmental Defense, fine particle pollution

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