Report: Air quality casts pall over Michigan’s national parks

Kurt Kuban is an avid outdoorsman who spends a good deal of time in state parks with his family. 

Kuban, a resident of Northville, Mich., spends time up north, whether camping or hunting. He took issue with a recent study that says the air quality in national parks in the state was suffering.

“I disagree with that completely, at least about Pictured Rocks,” said Kuban, whose family has spent time at the park along Lake Michigan in the Upper Peninsula. “We’ve never come across a problem like that in our trips to the parks.”

That conflicts with 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.

Polluted air
According to the report, many parks suffer from air pollution in more than one of the four categories. Fossil fuels and industrial air pollution, the report said, are primary contributors to the problem.

And sometimes it’s not a locally generated problem (the report said air pollution can travel hundreds of miles from its source). Scott Tucker, the superintendent at Sleeping Bear Dunes, on the northwest coast of Michigan’s lower peninsula, said airborne nitrogen from Milwaukee and Green Bay, Wisc., is part of the problem there.

“Even last summer we had visibility issues from wildfires in the West. It was pretty noticeable” during the filming of a new orientation movie, Tucker said.

Senior meteorologist Jim Heywood of Michigan’s 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.

‘Significant concern’
A 2015 Park Service air quality summary for Sleeping Bear Dunes identified “human health risk from ground-level ozone” warranting “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.

Northville’s Kuban wasn’t the only one raising an eyebrow at the results of the study. Bruce Leutscher, chief of science and resource stewardship at Pictured Rocks, 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 agreed with Kuban in pointing out the absence of a problem. “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 conducted 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.”

Relaxed regulations
A recent Associated Press report asserted an initiative by President Donald Trump to delegate 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,” according to the AP story.

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.

Eric Freedman of Capital News Service contributed to this report. Find his full story here: