SALT LAKE CITY — With 14 working days left to go before the legislative session ends, any substantive reforms dealing with air quality have yet to pass.
Several signficant bills are making good progress, however, including infusing new money into regulators' budgets to bolster a wood-burning educational campaign and paying for so-called "sole-source" homes to convert to a cleaner method for heat generation.
Advocates say they are generally encouraged by the public policy time the "dirty air" issue is getting on Utah's Capitol Hill and believe a pre-legislative season rally that drew thousands was a nudge for lawmakers to pay attention.
"I think the rally was a good expression of the frustration that so many Utahns have been feeling, especially as the pollution mounted leading into the session," said Christopher Thomas, executive director of HEAL Utah. "It took all of us working together to put it front and center in the minds of public policymakers."
Of course, the real test lies not in talk, but in action by lawmakers, Thomas and others stressed.
"I would say I am cautiously optimistic. Some of the bills we have identified as the highest priority have each passed out of a committee hearing," Thomas said. "From what we have seen so far, we are far ahead of where we were last legislative session."
For Thomas and many other advocates, one of the most important reforms that needs to be addressed this session is tackling the "no more stringent" law on Utah's books that keeps regulators from invoking standards that are tougher than the federal government.
Air quality officials in particular say they have been hemmed in from brokering more flexible solutions to the Wasatch Front's unique temperature inversions because of their inability to implement rules that go beyond the federal Clean Air Act.
On Friday, a committee of lawmakers endorsed a "compromise" measure by Rep. Rebecca Edwards, R-North Salt Lake, which would allow tougher rules, but only if certain hurdles were overcome, such as demonstrating a scientific or medical basis for the deviation.
While HB121 cleared its committee on a 13-2 vote, another measure that would repeal the stringent law altogether — SB164 — survived a committee vote but has been stuck in the Senate with no action for nearly two weeks.
Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said many of the bills introduced this session were "nibbling at the edges" bills that would have only small benefits for reducing air pollution.
Moench, too, placed priority on extinguishing the "no more stringent" law and said a measure to throw $20 million toward a cleaner school bus fleet, HB41, should be passed with funding intact.
Gov. Gary Herbert, in his budget, identified the transition of the older school bus fleet to cleaner burning vehicles as one of his air quality improvement targets.
"We don't agree with Herbert on a lot of things, but he's got that right," Moench said.
Moench also identified HB210, which would allow local governments to raise sales tax to direct money to transit projects, as a priority bill that would help to clean up the air, but it was just recently referred to the House Transportation Committee and has yet to be heard.
Thomas said he'd like Utah's legislators to throw their support behind Herbert's push to move the state to cleaner burning or so-called "Tier 3" fuels, while Moench said his group and others are rallying around Herbert's call for an inversion-season ban on all wood burning along the Wasatch Front.
"Quite frankly, the single most important state gesture currently on the table that would affect community wide air pollution is the governor's request that the (Air Quality Board) make a rule to ban wood burning during the entire inversion season," Moench said. "That doesn't really require a bill, and we are gearing up to fervently support the governor on that. "
Lawmakers are also considering raising the tax credit on electric and hybrid vehicles, making it so counties or cities could purchase solar power on behalf of residents and small businesses, and approving the relocation of a medical waste incineration plant to Tooele County to get it off the Wasatch Front.
A minor but important fix to Utah law under consideration would allow employers and businesses to install electric vehicle charging stations without worry they would be viewed as a "utility."
Despite the flurry of legislative measures on clean air issues, Moench said he remains largely disappointed with the inability of Utah lawmakers to readily acknowledge and react to the severity of Utah's air pollution problem, which he said leads to the premature deaths of 2,000 Utahns each year.
Moench said if that same number was assigned to something like the Ebola virus, lawmakers and the public would be "freaking" out.
"Because these people come into the morgue without a toe tag that says 'pollution did it,' it doesn't get the same amount of attention," he said.
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