Can Utah Develop Solutions to Clean Up the Air?

28 January 2014
Published in Science and Society
Written by  Kim Schuske
  • Print

The public has made it's voice heard when it comes to air pollution in the state. Regulators and government officials say they are developing a Utah solution for air quality. This year, there are plenty of people ready to hold them accountable.

Around 5,000 men, women, children, and dogs, many wearing masks, rallied at the state capitol on Saturday. They sang songs and listened to community leaders rail against the political and regulatory barriers to cleaning up the air.

Randal Autrey came to the rally from Draper with three of his nine children. He moved to Utah from North Texas 17 years ago for a job in the computer software industry. He says his family has had to deal with multiple cases of pneumonia over the years and two of his kids have asthma that gets worse during inversions. Beyond the health consequences he also has seen how the bad air hurts his company's ability to hire new talent.

"I recruit a lot of technical people to come to Utah and occasionally you will hear that, that they have seen we have had bad air and so they're not real excited to come here," says Autrey. "A little bit like we used to view Los Angeles, like you didn't really want to live there, but if the opportunity is good enough you can still get people here, but it definitely dissuades people."

Last year there were 35 days where small particulate, PM 2.5, pollution reached an unhealthy level that required mandatory action from residents. This year we've already had more than 20 days in this category.

Recently, the Division of Air Quality passed a State Implementation Plan, or SIP, that regulates air pollution emissions within the state. Perhaps the most controversial parts of the plan are regulations on large industries, or point sources, such as oil refineries. DAQ director Bryce Bird says, when developing the regulations, they had to take into account the costs of emission control upgrades in order to make them economically feasible. Even so, he says the upgrades required in the plan are costly.

"Some of these are hundreds of millions of dollars for the refineries for instance," says Bird. "They have to really go in there and re-engineer and redesign their existing facilities to bring them up to the current standards that a new refinery would have to meet today."

Overall, large industries will be able to increase their emissions by 12% in 2019 compared to 2010. This is unacceptable to many clean air advocates and a recent poll by the Salt Lake Tribune shows that 67% of the public wants tighter controls on industry.

One such advocate is Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for Clean Air. His organization and others have filed lawsuits against Kennecott and the Holly and Tesoro refineries in order to stop expansions that were permitted by the DAQ. Moench believes the permits violate the Clean Air Act.

"I guess our source of frustration is you can look at two different issues and if your priority is to protect industry, you're going to come up with one conclusion," says Moench. "If your priority is to protect public health, you look at the same data and say 'no' we're going to come up with a different conclusion, which is you cannot expand."

Director Bird says the companies met requirements for air quality at the time they applied for the permits, and the DAQ had no choice but to give them the permits to expand.

The Kennecott lawsuit has already been heard by a judge and is awaiting a decision; there is no court date scheduled yet for the other lawsuits.

Matt Pacenza, policy director for HEAL Utah, agrees that regulation on large industrial polluters like refineries are not stringent enough and this will likely come back to haunt the state.

"Everyone involved agrees that we're not going to hit the deadlines that were supposed to hit by 2015," says Pacenza. "And when that happens there will be a level of rigor that will need to be applied to industry for example that we chose not to do this time around. It's essentially a system where the federal government continues to ratchet and apply greater pressure. And that's one of the many reasons why knowing that's coming, we have urged the state to be tough now." He adds, "Why wait those two or three or four extra years when you'll be forced to do it? Do it now because we're breathing this air every day."

Despite the controversy over industry, the DAQ estimates that the majority of emissions, 57%, come from vehicles. Most of the gains in the state plan are the result of federal regulations that are requiring cleaner fuels and vehicles to be sold over the next few years.

The plan predicts the state will just barely reach attainment by 2019, leading many to think that the SIP doesn't go far enough. This year, a bipartisan group of legislators wants to be part of the solution. Of at least 16 air quality bills being drafted, one of the most important may be an Air Quality Revisions bill sponsored by Representative Rebecca Edwards. Her bill would reverse a Utah law requiring that state regulations may not be more stringent those required by the EPA.

Kathy Van Dame is on the board of Breathe Utah and represents organized environmental interests on the air quality board. She says the current rule causes a lot of problems for developing a Utah solution to air pollution.

"One of the other things that is just absolutely insidious about the requirement is that it is a fearful thing. So that whenever somebody comes up with a new idea, the naysayer only has to say 'that's more stringent than the EPA,' and it falls off the table," explains Van Dame.

She adds, if Edward's bill passes, it would open up the possibility of bringing cleaner, low sulfur fuels to the state, sooner than required by federal law.

"If Utah would for instance, go early for very clean car standards and fuel similar to what they have in California, right now that's not something that's required by EPA and so that would not be something that the DAQ could do," says Van Dame. "If we could get lower sulfur fuel in our cars right now, we would get a 9% reduction in the PM2.5 and precursory emissions from our gasoline fleet that's on the road right now."

While she recognizes the limitations of the State Implementation Plan, she voted to support it.

"One of the things that really is very hopeful is that throughout this process many people have recognized that the SIP by itself isn't enough to accomplish what it is that needs to be accomplished to clean our air." She adds, "It's one element, it's one tool. We need to figure out the ways that we're willing to go forward."

It's just possible that through regulations, laws, lawsuits, or maybe all three, Utah may finally get cleaner air.

Unused filter (white), normal air day (grey), red air day (black)

Additional Info

comments powered by Disqus