This year has been a strong indication that air pollution is no longer just our wintertime problem. If you have taken your blood pressure lately, it is likely higher than usual. Mine is. It's one of many side effects of breathing pollution. Even small elevations in blood pressure have long-term health consequences, so you may not want to read the rest of this column.
The Utah Division of Air Quality, or DAQ, is soliciting public comment on a long list of initiatives to avoid costly sanctions for exceeding federal pollution standards. That list even includes reducing emissions from restaurants and phasing out residential pilot-lighted gas appliances.
Rightly so, the little people, you and I, will be sacrificing to improve air quality. But the largest polluters, Rio Tinto/Kennecott and the oil refineries won't be joining the "sacrificers." The DAQ continues giving them permission to expand and make things worse.
At first glance, you might think more copper and oil is a good thing, but more pollution is definitely not. So a fair, common-sense reconciliation of these conflicting objectives might be regulatory constraints requiring both industries to adhere to the highest pollution standards possible. But fairness and common sense are too often in short supply.
The Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment had the application for the Tesoro refinery expansion reviewed by three refinery engineers who, putting it simply, concluded that the application allowed Tesoro to expand on the cheap. There are two different regulatory templates that Tesoro could have been required to conform to. Both would allow the same increase in production but are much different in how much pollution control would be required. With the help of these engineers, UPHE submitted highly technical, expert testimony that Tesoro's application used the template that was the cheapest for them but emitted the most pollution and would violate the Clean Air Act.
Nonetheless, the outcome was what we have come to expect. The DAQ issued yet another blank check to industry to do what it wants, and no, it does not require the pollution controls that these engineers said are feasible and readily available. The DAQ/Tesoro claim that it won't increase our pollution much is self-serving distortion of the data. For example, it completely ignores the fact that this expansion will increase Tesoro's annual emissions of HAPs, or Hazardous Air Pollutants, by more than 9,000 pounds. Compounds designated by the EPA as "HAPs" — like benzene, xylene, dioxins, lead, mercury, arsenic and cadmium — are labeled as such because they are the most deadly component of air pollution.
Many HAPs are extremely potent in causing cancer, reproductive and birth defects and fall into the broad category of "endocrine disruptors." In 2009, the Endocrine Society, physicians who specialize in endocrinology, issued a special scientific statement on the toxicity of endocrine disruptors: "Even infinitesimally low levels of exposure, indeed, any level of exposure at all, may cause endocrine or reproductive abnormalities, particularly if exposure occurs during a critical developmental window. Surprisingly, low doses may even exert more potent effects than higher doses."
The Associated Press reported, and internal EPA memos confirm, that nationwide real pollution from refineries is between three and 100 times greater than what is admitted by the refineries. Tesoro's expansion permit from the DAQ ignores and aggravates this outrage. Disgust among the local residents is mounting. Two former refinery managers have since contacted UPHE with more offers to help stop the expansions.
The Utah Legislature has never been accused of conspiring with environmentalists. But three weeks ago, Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups publicly excoriated the Department of Environmental Quality for what he saw as an illicit relationship with EnergySolutions. It was a breath of fresh air, and no one saw that coming. If Waddoups would like more breaths of fresh air he would next scrutinize the DAQ's relationship with industrial polluters. And if he examined the Legislature's role in this, like passing Sen. Margaret Dayton's two bills this year, he would see that subordinating environmental and public health protection to industry is the exact outcome his fellow legislators intended.
And if he feels his blood pressure rising, it may be what he's seeing, and also what he's breathing.
Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.