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

Published: Monday, Aug. 31 2015 5:36 a.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) 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?

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) 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)

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."

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) 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)

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.

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) 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)

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.

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) 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)

"It is not a regulatory program, but a partnership program that encourages and empowers organization and individuals to come up with their own solutions to clear the air. We trust the people of Utah to do their part to improve air quality without regulating their lives further."

Isom said the state has embraced other voluntary campaigns which she said have proven effective on a variety of fronts.

"It is our hope that drivers will drive smarter. Consumer education works. Cases in point: 'Slow the Flow' campaign for water conservation, 'Don't Waste Utah' anti-litter campaign, or 'Use Only As Directed' campaign for the safe disposal of prescription drugs," she said. "The point is that everyone can do something — one thing — to improve air quality and, collectively, we can all do a lot."

The voluntary effort, she said, does not mean enforcement takes a back seat.

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) 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)

"Moreover, we will continue to enforce regulations and EPA standards. It's a point naysayers seem to be missing completely. Nothing changes in the regulatory realm. Laws will continue to be enforced. Standards will still be upheld, both state and federal. We will absolutely not relent on that front."

But Utah's political leaders are often dragged kicking and screaming to that regulatory forefront, fighting the long arm of the federal government when it comes to enforcement of clean air standards.

Two Utah counties, Box Elder and Tooele, were joined by ATK and the communities of Brigham City, Grantsville and the city of Tooele in their objections to being declared as non-attainment areas for fine particulate pollution. The group sought relief from the designation, filing a petition in the D.C. Court of Appeals to have the EPA classification overturned. Their petition was denied earlier this year.

Box Elder County Commission Chairman Brian Shaffer said the county is no longer going to fight the EPA on the designation, which he said is unfair.

"It's not in the best interest of Box Elder County to pursue this anymore," he said. "It does cause us a lot of frustrations especially when we have not exceeded the standard in our county, yet we are required to meet the standard. It frustrates us to no end, but there is no reason to kick and scream and shout about it because we can't win."

Shaffer said the EPA roped in a section of Box Elder County because its traffic contributes to the poor airshed farther south. Industries such as ATK, Nucor Steel in Plymouth, a Walmart Distribution Center and Procter & Gamble, he added, "are all going to be heavily impacted because of what is being imposed."

In the meantime, does he think Box Elder County's air is dirty, unsafe for children or the elderly?

"No, it is not."

Utah, too, joined 22 other states this year asking for a delay of tighter emission standards slated to be imposed on power plants, arguing that the new rule is over-burdensome, will drive up electric rates and cost workers their jobs.

The state also has been in a years-long squabble with the EPA over how excess, accidental releases of emissions are handled with industrial stacks. The federal government threatened to take over a portion of Utah's air quality program if the state didn't require industry to file detailed reports explaining the malfunction and face possible fines or regulatory action.

Earlier this summer, the Utah Air Quality Board begrudgingly adopted the rule on a 6-3 vote, with three members representing industry continuing to insist the rule is over burdensome. The rule was upheld Aug. 6 by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, where U.S. Magnesium in Tooele County sought to have it tossed out.

Against this backdrop of resistance, the state Division of Air Quality is rushing to put the finishing touches on its draft plan to curb fine particulate pollution — and those with the most at stake are in disagreement over who is at fault, and how far the plan should go.

"We are divvying up the airshed and deciding who has to give up what," said Bill Reiss, the division's chief architect of Utah's soon-to-be-unveiled compliance plan. "We have not identified what all those reductions will be, but what we are painting now is what it will take to get us down below the line."

Shaffer said he has been on those pollution plan meetings and its baffling and discouraging to him.

"Despite everything they are planning to do and have to do in Salt Lake County, it still does not bring Salt Lake County down to the standard required by the EPA. You do all these things and it still does not matter; it still does not meet the standard. What's it going to take?"

Reiss concedes it is a difficult process coming up with a plan that ultimately will have to be justified to the EPA and shaping that plan over the cloud of objections and angst.

"Neither side (industry or the public) wants to give anything up, and we need a lot from each to get under the line." 

With Utahns' health on that line, Moench said the course of action should be simple.

"Everything we can do, we should do."

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