We are so far past desperate. Are we throwing up our hands? No. We are just looking at creative new ways to do things. —Dave McNeill, branch manager of the Utah Division of Air Quality
SALT LAKE CITY — The deadline for Utah regulators to come up with a plan to reduce fine particulate pollution is months away, but the time for zeroing in on the hard solutions is now.
"We are not done looking. There are still things out there to do," said Dave McNeill, branch manager of the Utah Division of Air Quality.
McNeill conceded that solutions that would have been put off until the division was desperate have now moved to the viable stage.
"We are so far past desperate," he said. "Are we throwing up our hands? No. We are just looking at creative new ways to do things."
McNeill was among dozens of people who filled a room Thursday at a division stakeholder meeting on the state's efforts to come into compliance with the federal threshold for PM 2.5, or fine particulate pollution, that plagues the Wasatch Front, especially during winter inversions.
Utah has until December to submit its final plan to the Environmental Protection Agency for approval, but, even then, top division officials said the state will not be able to demonstrate compliance.
It is those episodic inversions that push Utah's most urbanized areas over the limit and earn it the notorious distinction of having the worst air in the country during certain times of the winter.
McNeill said the division is developing a plan to go to big industry such as refineries and ask them to submit details on what they can do during those bad-air times to reduce emission levels.
Some emitters such as the University of Utah and Rio Tinto's Kennecott Utah Copper already make seasonal adjustments during the winter to reduce the amount of pollutants released into the atmosphere.
The division, too, is contemplating a scenario in which the emission threshold for major sources of pollution is lowered from 100 tons per year to 70 tons per year or even lower.
Such a reduction would have no impact on the large emitters, McNeill said, but would rope other industries into a category that would require them to install new equipment to achieve the lowest rate of emissions possible. That equipment, he said, is already on the major sources because of their classification.
If that new regulation were put into play in the core areas of the Wasatch Front, such as Salt Lake and Davis counties, McNeill and others warned of the unintended fallout that could occur, including providing a disincentive for new industry to set up shop in those counties.
"How these requirements are put into place does affect a business's decision on where they locate or if they upgrade to new technology," said Colleen Delaney, an environmental scientist with the division.
The rules, Delaney added, could backfire.
"The existing sources would just continue to operate as they have in the past," she said. "You want to allow the new, highly controlled sources to be built. That is where you get your emissions reductions. Too many impediments may harm air quality."
Many in the room expressed frustration at how — or if — the state could achieve that magic number that would meet EPA's mandate.
Beyond industry changes and more controls on other stationary or area sources of pollution, the signficant player is people and their cars, said Susan Hardy with the Mountainland Association of Governments.
"How do we get people using the right kind of vehicles?" she questioned. "We are not in a country where you can tell people what kind of car they can buy and what they can spend. As long as we don't curb our happiness of running around on a mechanical horse, it is not going to change."
McNeill said the division has met with Gov. Gary Herbert and discussed rolling out a plan that would require any employer, public or private, with more than 100 workers to develop an employer-based trip reduction plan.
That plan, detailing how workers' travel would be reduced, would have to be submitted to the division.
"Cache County is interested in doing one," he said, adding that a symposium is being planned to bring in other groups around the country detailing what components the plan should have.
McNeill said regardless of the EPA-imposed mandate, it is clear Utah has to get a handle on its pollution problem because of the public health risk it poses.
And with growth, the problem is only going to get worse, he added.
"We're supposed to add another million people by 2040, and those people are not going to come pollution-free," McNeill said.