North Texas air pollution hovers over Big Bend



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Posted on September 29, 2010 at 10:03 PM

Updated Thursday, Sep 30 at 6:19 PM

Big Bend National Park

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BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, Texas — Mountains? In Texas?


The stunning mountain ranges of the Big Bend area make it one of the most beautiful and unique places in the state. Pollution from North Texas, however, also helps make it one of the most polluted parks in the Western United States.

Sixty-five years ago, Forth Worth newspaper man Amon Carter helped buy the land, then handed Big Bend over to President Franklin Roosevelt.

Today, about 350,000 visitors every year come to experience the stunning vistas.

That is, when you can see them.

"To me, it's probably one of the most beautiful places in the world," said Big Bend landscape artist Bonnie Wunderlich, who has been painting here for 20 years.

She is keen to increase awareness of the decreasing visibility caused by air pollution.

"If you can't have a clear sky there, where can you have clean air?" she asked.

A 2005 landmark study on air quality in Big Bend found that pollution blows here from as close as Mexico and as far away as Ohio. In fact, the power plants in North Texas even contribute to the problem.

But the Texans who live in Big Bend — drawn to this place by its stunning beauty — say the problem has not gotten any better since the air quality study; they say it's worse.

Summer weather patterns carry air pollution from the East Coast and the eastern part of Texas down into the Gulf of Mexico and back up into Big Bend.

"The worst days I've seen here, you were lucky to see eight miles. It gets pretty hazy," said park ranger Jeff Bennett, who oversees Big Bend's sizable air monitoring station.

Don Dowdey is the President of the Big Bend Chapter of the Sierra Club. Environmentalists like him say Texas does not do enough to protect the air at Big Bend.

They accuse the state of going easy on coal-fired power plants. In fact, emissions from the "Big Brown" power plant near Dallas have been tracked all the way to Big Bend.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, however, says it is working with Washington and other states to address the complicated issue of air pollution that blows across state lines and national borders. So far, Mexico has refused to cooperate.

"Our position has always been, Texas should set an example," Dowdey said. "Mexico can say right now, 'You don't do very much to clean up your coal-fired plants; why should we clean up ours?' They're right."

Two hours north of Big Bend country, at the McDonald Observatory high in the Davis Mountains, air pollution is also a problem.

"The transparency of the sky is absolutely essential. That's why we're here at this site," explained astronomer Dr. Matthew Shetrone.

The University of Texas is a world leader in astronomy. But air pollution in this remote place can obscure the view of distant stars and even damage the equipment.

Pollution caused the facility to close down seven nights this summer.

"If Texas wants to be competitive in astronomy, it has to keep its skies clean," Shetrone said.

In fact, the Congress demands it. Federal Law says that by 2064, we must restore perfect visibility to Big Bend and all national parks.

It's a long time in the future, but there's a long way to go.

"It took us a long time to get here. It will take us a long time to get back," the Sierra Club's Dowdey said. "The question is: What are we doing to make it better now?"

It is a critical question for a remote place which belongs to all of us — one that helps make Texas... Texas.