Utah trashes air pollution plans, starts over

Paul Foy, Associated Press
December 14, 2012

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Utah's plans to reduce air pollution turned out to be nearly as bad as the air itself.

The state's Air Quality Board has scrapped pollution-fighting plans it deemed inadequate and start over with a new effort that will likely produce tougher regulations for a northern Utah urban corridor anchored by Salt Lake City.

Utah will miss a deadline set for Friday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which could threaten the state with the loss of federal highway funds but said it wouldn't go that far.

A group of Utah doctors fighting for tougher measures said politicians lack the will to impose tough regulations, especially on oil refineries, and were stalling for time. The doctors said the setback puts thousands of children at risk of health or development issues.

State and federal regulators conceded the plans that were years in the making fell short of meeting national air-quality standards. And with EPA looking at tightening the standards, Utah officials said they could be forced to look at far-reaching measures to control vehicle, commercial and industrial emissions.

"It's better to have the right plan late than the wrong plan on time," said Bruce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality. Utah would only have less time to start showing actual pollution reductions by another deadline of December 2014, he said.

EPA spokesman Richard Mylott indicated the agency had a role in holding off Utah's plans for a better effort. EPA had been involved in the Utah regulations and recognized they needed "additional work," he said.

"From a practical standpoint, EPA's primary concern is securing a viable and complete plan to achieve the health-based air quality standard. There is no immediate penalty required under the Clean Air Act if a submittal deadline is missed," Mylott told The Associated Press. "The State is making an earnest effort ... We expect that Utah will work diligently to complete their plan as soon as possible."

While Utah's effort is aimed at improving air quality year-round, experts conceded that there was little hope any human effort could significantly curb Utah's most intense periods of pollution.

Those episodes generally arrive after the start of winter, when windless conditions combine with geography to trap pollutants close to the ground, leaving cities in Utah's mountain valleys to choke on their own emissions for days or weeks at a time.

"It's a mess between politics, geography and weather," said Richard Kanner, a pulmonologist, or lung doctor, and former member and chairman of the Utah Air Quality Board, who suggested Utah officials were reluctant to do what it takes to clean up the air.

"EPA could come out with stricter regulations. We've got a real problem. There's no way we're going to meet it without harsh action," he said.

The Utah Air Quality Board has adopted a pollution-fighting plan for the mountain valley of Cache County, but that plan is hardly settled. The state board is pushing for tailpipe emissions testing that Cache County lawmakers vow to block.

Cache County offered an alternative plan: grounding the most polluting cars and trucks when impurities build up. The EPA has indicated it won't accept that plan. The standoff has yet to be resolved.

The Air Quality Board scrapped two other plans covering the Wasatch Front. One was written for Utah County, which sits in its own mountain valley. The other was for a neighboring five-county area along the Wasatch Front known as the Salt Lake air shed.

One part of those plans requires no action at all: State regulators are counting on people buying new cars to achieve much of the improvement in air quality. Tailpipe emissions are the biggest source of air pollution.

But the board considered other regulations that brought howls of protest from businesses. One would require industrial bakeries to install expensive catalytic converters for their ovens to remove ethanol, a byproduct of yeast leavening. Catalytic converters burn off volatile organic compounds that contribute to smog.

Catalytic converters should also be required of restaurant grills, but Utah couldn't bring itself to crack down on them, said Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

"They're smoking up the neighborhood," said Moench, who also suggested that Utah move to phase out diesel-powered school and transit buses.

Another measure the air-quality board didn't take was prohibiting wood-burning in fireplaces or stoves year-round in the most populous counties.

"It's like lighting a barrel of cigarettes," Moench said. "From a health standpoint, that's what you're doing. We need to get over our romanticism with wood burning."

Moench offered other ideas: offering free mass transit on days of intense pollution; lowering freeway speeds to 55 mph, and limiting ore crushing at Kennecott Utah Copper, which operates a giant pit just west of Salt Lake City.

"We heartily agree Utah's plans will not be adequate to protect us, but we're disappointed we can't get the plan under way sooner," he said. "The longer the delay, the more victims there will be of bad air."