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Missouri legislation would limit light pollution

Monday, February 9, 2009 | 4:56 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri regulates air pollution, water pollution, even noise pollution. But light pollution?

Under a bill filed in the legislature, Missouri could consider excessive light a pollutant in the night sky.

The bill creates voluntary benchmarks to reduce light pollution in state parks, wilderness areas and military training facilities.

Under the guidelines, those protected areas should strive to have no more than twice the natural brightness of the night sky by 2025. By 2055, 90 percent of the areas should be no more than 10 percent brighter than a natural night sky.

Sponsoring Rep. Jason Holsman said excessive light in the night sky ruins the view for outdoor enthusiasts. He views his bill as a way to educate people about the problem.

"They come to Missouri to get away from the big city, and then they can't see the stars," said Holsman, D-Kansas City. "It reduces the visual aesthetics of the sky."

A similar bill was introduced by Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis.

According to the International Dark-Sky Association, hundreds of cities have adopted light pollution ordinances. About a dozen states have adopted some form of regulation and a handful of others have proposed legislation this year.

Missouri State University in Springfield hosted a forum Monday night about light pollution. Among the expert panelists was Buell Jannuzi, director of Arizona's Kitt Peak National Observatory, which has the world's largest collection of optical telescopes.

"Light pollution is light that's not serving anybody's needs," Jannuzi said in an interview. "Everybody agrees that spending money on something you don't need is a bad idea."

He said state laws are generally less restrictive than city or county ordinances. The benefit of statewide laws, he said, is that they target areas outside local jurisdictions.

To reduce the amount of light, businesses and individuals could use lower-wattage bulbs and fixtures that direct the glow downward instead of up into the sky. For example, a 100-watt bulb looks the same as a 150-watt bulb if used in a shielded fixture, said Robert Wagner, an International Dark-Sky Association board member who lives in Kansas City.

Wagner, an Eagle Scout, said he sees a brighter night sky during camping trips with his son.

"The places that I went to 20, 25 years ago have started to go downhill as far as light pollution," he said.

On his Web site, Wagner offers a $100 "bounty" for finding a Missouri state park without light pollution. He also created guidelines for the Boy Scouts, outlining ways to light up a camp while preserving the view.

At Missouri State University's Baker Observatory in rural Webster County, astronomy professor Robert Patterson said light pollution means his students get only an "inkling" of what the night sky looks like.

"It continues to grow as a problem out there, even though the observatory is about 30 miles from campus," he said. "In this case it's primarily because of an increasing number of homes or farms with outdoor lighting."

Patterson said he would prefer cities use low-pressure sodium bulbs, which give off a more subdued glow. Bulbs that use mercury or high-pressure sodium interfere with certain portions of the atmosphere that astronomers hope to study, he said.

The military also has been concerned about excessive light. Stan Rasmussen, a lawyer who monitors environmental legislation in a four-state area for the Department of Defense, said light pollution interferes with night training exercises. Sensitive night-vision goggles can pick up stray light and make the training unrealistic.

"We want to be able to engage the enemy at night, so we have to be able to train that way," he said.

Rasmussen said the problem is most acute at Camp Bullis near San Antonio.

Critics of the bill, including some gas station owners, raise public safety concerns. Ron Leone, executive director of Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said lighting is one of the top things people look for when they pull over for gas.

"We're concerned that government regulations may in fact impact the safety of private businesses," he said.

 


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