Bring your earplugs to Yellowstone

When the Bush administration greenlighted snowmobiles in the park, it promised technology would keep the noise down. The new "quiet" models tearing around are anything but.

Published April 23, 2004 11:40PM (EDT)

You might think a winter job in the snowy recesses of Yellowstone National Park would guarantee perks along the lines of, say, peace and quiet. Au contraire. In light of a recent study conducted for the National Park Service, many Yellowstone employees are being advised to don hearing protection fit for a rock 'n' roll roadie -- all thanks to the relentless drone of snowmobiles in the park.

"The Bush administration tried to assure us that in the snowmobile issue, like so many others, technology is the answer -- that simply upgrading engine technology was the answer to the snowmobile problem rather than prohibiting them altogether," said Abigail Dillen, an attorney with Earthjustice. Dillen's organization represents the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and other environmental groups in their lawsuit against the Bush administration for reversing a Clinton-era ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone.

Bush's call for use of the "best available technology" has yet to result in the Prius of snowmobiles. Despite claims by the Interior Department that new four-stroke snowmobiles are far less noisy than older two-stroke models, critics charge that the new generation of machines has proven considerably more polluting -- both in terms of emissions and noise -- than promised.

In fact, the new four-stroke models are loud enough to damage hearing, according to internal Park Service documents obtained and released last week by the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees, a group of 230 retired employees and directors of the NPS.

The coalition released minutes from a meeting from late January in which a Yellowstone safety officer, Brandon Gauthier, advised employees who drive the new four-stroke snowmobiles to wear earplugs because the machines are almost as loud as the two-stroke models, reaching a noise level of 111 decibels during acceleration. That's more than 25 percent higher than the 85-decibel level at which medical experts advise the use of hearing protection.

Officials at NPS headquarters did not respond to Muckraker's repeated requests for comments. But it appears that the noise data hasn't concerned them much, according to Bill Wade, a former superintendent of Shenandoah National Park and the coordinator of the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees. "The administration has known about this for nearly three months, but the Interior folks didn't seem at all inclined to make this information available to the public," he said. "So we took it into our own hands."

The four-stroke decibel levels cited by Gauthier are chronicled in a conspicuously unreleased March study conducted for the NPS (see a data table from the study). According to the retirees' coalition, 18 of 20 tests measuring noise levels on or near snowmobiles found that those levels exceeded 100 decibels. Granted, a study with 20 samples is not comprehensive, but it was grounds enough for Yellowstone's Safety Office to cite four-stroke snowmobiles in a recent employee newsletter as a potential noise hazard that would necessitate hearing protection.

At least the NPS employees are being alerted about the danger to their hearing. Park visitors who ride snowmobiles are not.

Perhaps that's because the administration is taking its cues from the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association. The group's president, Ed Klim, told Muckraker that the notion that four-stroke snowmobile engines pose a noise problem is "a lie -- it's just plain wrong." He said, "I'm not a trained sound engineer, but I do ride snowmobiles, and I know they are quieter [than two-stroke models] -- significantly quieter." Klim, incensed by the coalition's claims, blasted the organization last week in an article in the Casper Star-Tribune as "old retired guys who don't know anything." As he told reporter Ted Monoson, "I wish they had done as much work when they were employed."

Wade was not fazed by the aspersions. "I want to stand face to face with this Klim guy and ask: What kind of scientific evidence do you have that disputes this [noise] data and shows that noise in a national park is tolerable and consistent with the values of Yellowstone? We have data that says it's not," he said.

The data is certain to be fodder for the ongoing legal battle between the Bush administration and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which won its initial lawsuit in a D.C. federal court, reversing the Bush administration's effort to block Clinton's snowmobile ban. That court's decision has since been challenged by the snowmobile industry and the state of Wyoming, and the outcome of the Great Yellowstone Snowmobile Controversy still hangs in limbo.

"The question boils down to this," Wade said. "Is any recreation machine that is noisy enough to potentially cause hearing damage appropriate in the world's flagship national park? In my opinion, it's not. The emphasis is supposed to be on preserving the natural quiet so we can hear the subtle sounds of Yellowstone -- the wildlife, the geysers and mud pots."

Perhaps that's why some 90 percent of the hundreds of thousands of public comments on Clinton's snowmobile ban supported the initiative.


"Study finds mandatory caps work better than voluntary programs to limit pollution"

This just in, from the Department of Near Tautologies: Mandatory emissions caps rein in power-plant pollution more effectively than voluntary programs.

That's the conclusion being drawn from a report on the environmental records of the 100 largest electricity companies in the United States, released last week by an alliance of bottom-liners and tree huggers, including the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies (CERES), the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Public Service Enterprise Group, New Jersey's largest utility.

Some folks might regard that conclusion as a no-brainer, but those folks don't work for the Bush administration -- it's made "voluntary compliance" the central plank of its environmental platform.

Recall the words of Assistant Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett in a recent Grist interview in which she argued the virtues of voluntary programs: "Regulations tend to curtail creativity and innovation. Just think of the way, by analogy, most of us raise our families. Sure, you hold out some discipline for your children, but for the most part we try to inspire them to be flourishing young people through being role models, through encouragement, through exciting them about opportunities in the world before them."

Most parents, however, still put the cookie jar out of reach -- a "command and control" parenting strategy that Bush backers seem to favor when it comes to social issues.

President Bush's down-with-command-and-control philosophy on the environment is perhaps most conspicuous in his widely criticized proposal for a voluntary cap-and-trade program to curb the growth of carbon dioxide emissions. It's also evident in his administration's repeated efforts to scale back enforcement and to gut mandatory emission-reduction programs such as new-source review and the Clinton-era plan for cutting mercury emissions.

The new report contends that this strategy might demonstrate more trust in the kids than they deserve.

The study analyzed utility-industry emissions of four pollutants -- nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon dioxide (CO2) and mercury -- using data collected by the EPA and the Energy Information Administration from 1991 to 2002. The data revealed a marked overall decrease in emissions of pollutants subject to mandatory federal regulations: NOx fell by 28 percent over the period studied, and SO2 fell by 35 percent. Both pollutants, targeted by the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990, contribute to acid rain and haze, and NOx is also a key ingredient in smog.

In sharp contrast, CO2, a greenhouse gas and a major contributor to climate change, has been the subject of a range of hopeful government initiatives and pleas, none mandatory, and -- surprise, surprise -- emissions of the pollutant rose by 25 percent between 1991 and 2002.

The report shows that "this notion that voluntary programs alone will work to address global warming in the utility sector is a farce," said Dan Lashof, science director of NRDC's Climate Center.

But, said Lashof, even more important conclusions can be drawn from the study, which found little correlation between the rate of emissions from utilities and the amount of electricity they produced.

Take this statistic: Fewer than one-fifth of the companies studied account for half of the utility sector's total emissions output -- including SO2, NOx, CO2 and mercury. And those companies' emissions are not proportional to the amount of electricity they generate. For example, explained CERES spokesperson Nicole St. Clair, though Southern Company generated just four times more electricity than its smaller competitor Calpine, the former belched a shocking 6,300 times more SO2 than the latter. Likewise, American Electric Power generated 28 times more juice than Panda Energy, but pumped out 436 times more NOx emissions along the way.

What does this tell us?

"Good news and bad news," David Gardiner, senior advisor to CERES and a former assistant administrator of the U.S. EPA under Clinton. He told Muckraker, "The bad news is that the regulations aren't working uniformly: There's a major discrepancy between the way our federal regulations are being implemented among different companies and in different states." But, he said, "the good news is that companies like Calpine are making great strides in economically viable ways, and that if we implement stronger regulations uniformly nationwide, we will see deep cuts in these emissions."

It's no small issue: The EPA itself has estimated that NOx and SO2 emissions from power plants still cause some 30,000 premature deaths each year. This -- combined with the EPA's troubling announcement last week that more than 474 counties do not meet updated health standards for ground-level ozone, directly linked to NOx emissions -- demonstrates, one might think, a need for some firm discipline.

Thankfully, there's more good news, according to Gardiner: "More and more, polluting companies -- and their shareholders, especially -- are beginning to realize that dirtier power plants face disproportionate financial and legal risks compared to their cleaner competitors." In the case of CO2, investors are starting to accept that caps are inevitable down the line, and they don't like the uncertainty of wondering when it will happen and how much time they will have to prepare, he added.

This unease is prompting a growing number of shareholders to push corporations for more disclosure of environment-related data and a lowering of emissions, and even to call for more uniform federal enforcement of emission standards for a full spectrum of pollutants.

In other words, children can learn to behave, but it sometimes takes more than asking nicely.

By Amanda Griscom

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