SALT LAKE CITY — Utah forged ahead with a pollution-reducing plan that includes the adoption of more than a dozen new rules for road work, automotive painting, printing and paving companies during a marathon board meeting Wednesday that still leaves the toughest challenges for last.
While many of the new emission limits are designed to help Utah comply with mandates of the federal Clean Air Act for fine particulate pollution, limits on the big contributors — such as industry in the Provo and Salt Lake County areas — remain on the drafting board.
Dave McNeill, branch manager of the Division of Air Quality, said the Environmental Protection Agency and the state have agreed to a six-month delay in submitting the component of the plan that deals with what technological controls industry will have to install to cut the pollution.
"We would rather be late (and) right than to be wrong on time," McNeill said. "We will make (the deadline) by 2014, with the extension to go out through 2019."
Utah has some of the country's dirtiest air in its urban areas, fostered by mountainous terrain, the Great Salt Lake and a burgeoning population in love with its automobiles.
When high-pressure systems trap that pollution in the winter and ozone spikes in the summer heat, public health is compromised — not only for those with respiratory problems and the elderly and very young, but for anyone exposed for long periods.
Numerous studies have linked spiking pollution levels to increased incidences of stroke or cardiac events, and clean air advocates contend even the federal threshold set for pollution limits isn't protective enough for public health.
Utah air quality regulators have been crafting a pollution-reducing plan since the state landed on the list of being out of compliance in 2009, a laboriously technical and protracted effort that has involved dozens upon dozens of meetings with business owners and operators, the public and clean air advocates.
Their target, they concede, may be practically impossible to reach, but the federal dictate was staring them in the face with an adoption deadline of Dec. 14.
"The general theme is that it is incomplete, and we acknowledge that," said Bill Reiss, the state's point man for crafting the plan.
Reiss added that more analysis needs to be done on how much new technological controls will reduce pollution from big emitters and whether the bang is worth the bucks invested.
"Step one is identifying everything you can think of that will help you along the way, and step two is basically looking at the (sum) of that and testing that against the model of what you feel meets the criteria of being reasonable," he said. "It has to be both technically feasible and economically feasible."
Board member Kathy Van Dame, who is also with the Wasatch Clean Air Coalition, was blunt in her disappointment that controls on big industry still remain unfinished in the plan.
"It is seriously so disappointing to me that we keep hearing it is almost done, almost done," Van Dame said.
Reiss acknowledged that the plan is incomplete, saying the division simply ran out of time.
"Industry is very obviously a visible component, but this is not their first (plan)," he said. "I would not offer anybody that this is the silver bullet. … It is still going to be a tough road to get to attainment, and it is still going to take longer than 2014 to get there."
The Division of Air Quality is embracing a strategy that loops new polluters under the umbrella of regulatory controls while holding out hope that as cleaner-burning cars take to the roads in the next five years, tailpipe emissions will drastically decrease.
Big industry, the division contends, contributes but one component to the Wasatch Front's dirty air, but stricter limits will come through expensive gadgetry that will have to be installed.
While questions remain about what those industry limits will be for the Salt Lake and Provo areas that exceed federal pollution standards, the Air Quality Board didn't quibble over extending pollution controls to Cache County for the first time, including a much-resisted vehicle inspection and emissions program.
Board member Craig Petersen, who also sits on the Cache County Council, said the state lacks the legal authority to mandate the program when the EPA has yet to weigh in on it.
Residents there are not sold on the benefits, and an alternate program offered by Cache County falls short, according to McNeill.
The two went round and round in a lengthy and somewhat tense discussion on the merits, or the detriments, of having that program extended to Cache County.
Petersen likened it to going after a problem with a meat ax when a surgeon's knife would do.
"If the weather is bad, no matter what we do we will not be in compliance," he said. "Overwhelmingly, this thing is determined by weather conditions, no matter what we do."
The division has insisted Cache County craft an inspection and emissions program that incorporates the tenets of what is already in place in other non-attainment areas of the state and a program that meets with EPA approval.
Under the plan adopted Wednesday, that program needs to be defined by mid-December 2013.
Petersen objected to the state's mandate to come up with acceptable inspections and emissions plan, countering that it should be the work of both the county and the state.
"The right of public choice has value," he said. "I am really troubled by the Division of Air Quality attitude that if we don't like it, it is our responsibility to come up with an alternative."
But board member Darrell Smith pointed out that Cache County residents, absent such a program, may not know their vehicles need fixes to curtail tailpipe emissions, much like general physical exams can detect health problems early on.
"Most of us in the state of Utah would recognize and say that we have an air quality problem. It is all a little bit of our own responsibility to do something about," Smith said. "If we know we have an air quality problem, this is a team effort for the entire state of Utah, regardless of what county we live in. Our vehicles are not what we think they are."
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