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In our opinion: State clean air panel is not a new idea

Published: Monday, Oct. 28 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

View of the valley covered in smog from Ensign Peak Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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With public pressure mounting over dirty air in Utah, the governor has commissioned a panel to study the problem and make policy recommendations. If that sounds like recent news, it is. Gov. Gary Herbert announced the formation of a Clean Air Action Team earlier this month.

If it sounds like old news, it is, as well. The year was 1989, the governor was Norman Bangerter, and the panel assigned to tackle the air quality problem was called the Utah Clean Air Commission. When it comes to advancing environmental initiatives, it seems the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The parallel experiences of two governors offers a parallel lesson on the difficulties inherent in dealing with the issue of bad air. First, it's a problem with many entrenched causes that aren't easily and quickly addressed. Second, when policy makers have been faced with this obstinate problem, they have found it convenient to turn it over to one sort of blue ribbon task force or another.

That is not to say such commissions are ineffective. The Bangerter panel studied the issue for two years and handed down several recommendations for legislation and policy changes. A few were actually implemented, and others came to fruition on their own. But 25 years later, air quality is still generally poor, and getting worse, especially during temperature inversions.

Because we've seen this movie before, we are now set on a different ending. There should be an abiding expectation that whatever reasonable policy changes the Clean Air Action Team promotes are actually implemented, and that in due course we see advances in bringing down the levels of particulate pollution that range from barely acceptable to nearly toxic.

Herbert has promised as much, saying, "This isn't a matter of feel-good stuff, but getting results."

As far as results go, the experience of the panel's progenitor in the Bangerter years is a mixed bag. The 1989 commission pushed for things that have come into being, including additional high occupancy vehicle lanes on freeways and greater mass transit, including light rail, along the Wasatch Front.

But it also recommended a strict and vigorously enforced ban on wood burning in stoves and fireplaces during inversion periods, something clean air advocates are still calling for. The Bangerter commission recommended increased staffing levels for the state's air quality regulatory agency, which hasn't happened. It also recommended Utah adopt more strict automobile emissions standards, in concert with those in use in California. A quarter century later, that's still on the table.

Meanwhile, one of our preferred solutions — turning all Wasatch Front interstate lanes into variable toll lanes — is not part of the discussion.

Like those who served on the earlier commission, members of the new task force are no doubt approaching their duty with good intentions. But then as now, the constituencies that would resist the imposition of stronger anti-pollution measures are deep-rooted and politically influential.

The new task force is dubbed an "action team" even though it is endowed with no statutory authority to take any action beyond making recommendations. Lest history repeat, the onus is on the governor and Legislature to make sure the work of the panel translates into meaningful action against a problem that is already well enough studied.

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