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The Environmental Protection Agency is talking with Montana about the state's return of a program to fight regional haze in national parks and wilderness areas, but the EPA will carry out the program itself if it has to.

Cindy Cody, manager with the EPA's air quality planning unit in Denver, said Monday that the EPA will do what it needs to do to ensure the program is carried out in Montana.

Last week, Montana's Department of Environmental Quality said it was returning the program to the EPA because financial support from the EPA is inadequate.

DEQ Director Richard Opper said the regulatory demands imposed on states by the federal government in the past 10 years have made it impossible for Montana to meet a requirement to develop a plan to protect visibility in national parks and wilderness areas by December 2007.

The DEQ reassigned staff from the regional haze program to regulatory programs affecting public health.

Under an EPA rule on regional haze, states must develop plans to cut pollution that reduced visibility in 156 designated natural areas. In Montana, those areas include Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.

The state plans would require certain qualifying industrial plants to install pollution equipment to control haze-causing pollution, such as particulate, sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen.

The Montana DEQ's work on the program includes the identification of 10 sources that may be eligible for additional pollution controls.

Montana's return of the program last week caught the EPA by surprise.

The agency, Cody said, has "empathy with all the states" in having to take on a big workload with air-quality programs while budgets for states have remained relatively flat.

"We understand that's an issue," she said.

Montana already has done a lot of work on the program, Cody said. The DEQ has done a good job with modeling and the initial assessment of sources potentially eligible for pollution controls, she said. The EPA would be able to take Montana's work and expand on it.

"We're still trying to assess what that workload may be" and whether the EPA needs extra resources, Cody said.

The EPA is still talking with Montana but is prepared to carry out the plan if something can't be worked out with the state, she said.

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