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Report: Bad air is not Utah's only environmental concern

Published: Sunday, Jan. 26 2014 5:45 p.m. MST

Deseret Chemical Depo where the one millionth successful disposal of chemical munitions at the Deseret Chemical Depot outside of Tooele, Utah, Mar. 9, 2005.

Tom Smart, Deseret News Archives

SALT LAKE CITY — Dogged challenges with Utah's air quality may have occupied much of the news and the attention of state regulators in 2013, but there were a host of other issues to contend with such as water pollution, fuel spills and the storage of radioactive waste.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality's Annual Environmental Report, released this month, documents the array of responsibilities that come with the care-taking of the state's land, air and water resources.

For 2013, much of the effort of the agency went to monitoring improvements to the state's soil, water and air.

Air quality

In air quality for example, the report notes that the five-year marathon of crafting a plan to bring Utah into compliance with federal clean air standards was finalized in December. To curb PM.25, or fine particulate matter, major industrial polluters will have to shave emissions by 4,500 tons in a plan that is phased in over five years and is expected to bring Utah into "attainment" by 2019.

In addition, 23 new rules will deliver substantive controls for a variety of businesses and reduce the fumes in consumer products, and the Utah Air Quality Board urged the EPA to give a nod to new fuel and vehicle standards that will cut pollution even further.

Out in the Uintah Basin, the Division of Air Quality continued its role in the largest, most expansive air quality study in the state probing the winter-time ozone pollution. The study period of 2013 saw ozone, a typical summer problem, reach levels 89 percent higher than the federal standard. That standard was exceeded 22 days in Vernal and 29 days in Roosevelt.

Radioactive waste

The department, through its Division of Radiation Control, began review in October of another multi-year process involving the state's potential receipt of 700,000 tons of a unique radioactive waste called depleted uranium.

EnergySolutions has already disposed of 3,577 tons of depleted uranium at its Clive facility in Tooele County, but has had to prepare a site-specific performance assessment that looks at how equipped Clive is to receive the additional waste. Depleted uranium is a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process that occurs in the nuclear industry.

Storage of depleted uranium — a low-level radioactive waste — has raised fervent opposition among activists because it has a half-life of 4.5 billion years and gets "hotter" over time.

The division hired an outside contractor to look at the potential risks and vulnerabilities associated with the disposal — modeling for potential problems 10,000 years in the future. It is expected that the assessment will come up for public comment in the summer, with the division slated to make a determination about Clive's suitability for storage in the fall.

Water quality

A more immediate problem tasked the Division of Water Quality in March when a 8-inch Chevron pipeline failed, sending 21,000 gallons of fuel into the wetlands and a beaver lodge at Willard Bay State Park north of Ogden. The spill forced the closure of the north marina and campground at the popular boating and fishing destination for months.

The spill has since been remediated, but the division continues to wait on results to determine if the area has ecologically recovered. Chevron is participating in a $5.5 draft settlement agreement with the division, with more than a half million that will cover lost revenue and expenses for the parks division.

Last year also saw another water contamination problem rise to the level of garnering national attention with the EPA's designation of the PCE plume in Salt Lake City as a "Superfund" site.

Ongoing water sampling and investigations over the years have determined that a former dry cleaning operation at the Veterans Administration hospital led to groundwater contamination from a suspected cancer-causing chemical called tetrachloroethylene, or PCE.

The PCE plume has been a high priority target of water quality regulators in both Salt Lake City and at the state agency because of fears the contaminated groundwater could spread. The EPA designation will accelerate the cleanup of the site and happened at the urging of city and state officials.

Addressing the challenges of nutrient pollution, too, rose to a top priority as water quality regulators and waste treatment plant operators grapple with looming mandates to keep Utah's waterways as pristine as possible.

A study commissioned by the state showed as much as $2.4 billion is spent each year recreating on Utah lakes and streams. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus, however, threaten those waterways and pose a billion dollar problem to remedy. The department worked on strategies to combat the excess "nutrient load," which would result in a $3.47 a month extra charge to each household that is still under consideration.

Chemical cleanup

In 2013, environmental regulators through the hazardous waste division also continued their role in the closure operations of Tooele's chemical depot, which once housed the nation's largest stockpile of chemical weapons.

The last of the mustard gas and nerve agent was eliminated in January of 2012, but 2.6 million pounds of secondary waste had to be destroyed. The Deseret Chemical Depot officially closed last July, with state officials monitoring, and 19,000 acres were transferred to the Tooele Army Depot.

A year ago, in the midst of the persistent January inversion, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert with much less public fanfare dedicated the month to raising the awareness of radon exposure among residents.

A naturally occurring gas, radon occurs in an estimated 35 percent of Utah households at levels in which the EPA recommends it should be eradicated. Nationally, it caused 20,000 lung cancer deaths a year. In 2013, the department's public outreach program was involved in 7,418 tests and in the mitigation of 1,256 instances where radon was detected.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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