Does Utah have the political will to make tough pollution choices?

Published: Saturday, Aug. 11 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announces a U-CAIR clean air initiative in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012. The governor is surrounded by alternative fuel source vehicles during the news conference.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert stood before a natural gas refueling station in January and touted the Utah Clean Air Partnership, or U-CAIR, as his commitment to finding solutions to the dirty air problem. 

But the voluntary program has yet to gain momentum or draw much interest from businesses and individuals, leaving the governor open to criticism that a voluntary program is no program at all.

"The Utah citizenry must remember that any improvement in air quality over the last decades was due to the threat of the Clean Air Act," said Terry Marasco, a member of the Utah Clean Air Alliance.

It raises the question: Does Utah have the political will to make hard choices about cleaning the air, choices that could result in higher costs, fees or even taxes?

U-CAIR includes a voluntary registration on a state website where Utahns and business representatives can pledge and disclose the changes they plan to make to help the state track emissions reductions.

About two dozen businesses and government organizations have taken the pledge to be a "champion" of clean air practices, as well as 300 individuals.

Herbert's office defended the low number of participants, saying efforts like these take time to develop traction.

"It's still relatively early for this kind of effort, especially when we are doing it with existing, limited resources, but word is getting out and we are putting pieces in place to ramp up public outreach and marketing," said his spokeswoman, Ally Isom. "These things just take time to get momentum, but as we lock in partnerships and our reach expands, we are confident this effort will grow."

But Marasco, who is also part of a working group helping to shape the state's plan on fine particulate pollution, said the current political climate deters initiatives with any teeth.

As an example, when Salt Lake City passed an anti-idling ordinance to reduce vehicle emissions, the uproar on Capitol Hill was loud and angry and the reaction swift. Lawmakers said cities shouldn't be allowed to interfere with drive-through businesses, and shouldn't be able to make laws that usurp the state's authority.

Their objections glossed over air pollution, but instead focused on the abuse of property rights, passing a bill that diluted Salt Lake's efforts. Another bill, however, passed this past session to create a task force that among other things will study the economic impacts of air quality in Utah and how the regulatory landscape can be strengthened to foster improvements.

In the midst of that effort, Dr. Brian Moench, head of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Marasco and other clean air advocates say Herbert, with his voluntary initiative, sidestepped an opportunity to show that Utah takes its air quality problem seriously.

"Voluntarism is not the approach that will work as the issue is pressing," Marasco said. "What is missing from the U-CAIR initiative is leadership from the governor stating: 'We have a problem, here are the consequences (health and business related) and here is what we must do to clear the air."

Herbert defends his initiative and insists that since business and people alike contribute to the air pollution problem, everyone needs to do their part.

"Look, no one is off the hook. Businesses and industries must comply with standards set by state and federal regulations under the Clean Air Act. The Utah Clean Air Partnership, or UCAIR, designed to complement the current regulatory framework, works to educate and inform individuals, businesses and local governments to voluntarily go above and beyond what is required," he said.

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