SALT LAKE CITY — A committee of Utah lawmakers struck back at a fledgling rule to improve air quality, asserting the ban on outdoor wood furnaces is unfair and would not significantly address the problem of air pollution.
The near-unanimous vote on HB394 came late Thursday in the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, with Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, casting the only nay vote on advancing the measure.
"My vote will be no," Briscoe told his colleagues. "My wife has asthma. I don't think we have really wrapped our head around what it means to be out of compliance with federal standards."
Sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, the bill would overturn the February adoption of a rule banning outdoor wood boilers, or furnaces, in Utah counties that are designated "non-attainment" for meeting federal standards on PM2.5 emissions.
Noel and other supporters of the bill spoke to its unfairness in singling out only 100 of the devices that operate in the state, heating units that also receive an IRS rebate for their renewable energy value.
"We've got to be very careful about picking on one group," Noel said, saying the issue was brought to his attention by David Leavitt, a Utah County resident who operates his outdoor wood boiler to heat his home.
Leavitt told committee members it's a matter of fairness because the Utah Air Quality Board, in adopting the rule, is only banning the outdoor wood-burning device, when wood-burning stoves are allowed to continue to function in homes, except on bad air quality days.
"These outdoor wood boilers are vastly more efficient than burning anything indoors," he said.
Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said the rule was enacted to help the populated Wasatch Front get a handle on its air pollution problems — and wood burning plays a role.
Outdoor wood boilers, Bird added, were treated differently because they act differently than indoor wood-burning stoves, including burning large amounts of wood at a time for extended periods.
"These are great products for areas where we don't have air quality problems, where we don't have problems with inversions. They're not appropriate where we have a lid placed on a valley with inversions," he said.
Bird added that outdoor wood boilers were among dozens of emissions sources tackled by regulators for Utah to come into compliance with federal clean air standards and one identified arena where progress could be made.
"Our main message our air shed is full and we can't knowingly allow emission sources that are not well controlled," he said.
In other clean air action, the committee unanimously endorsed HB168, sponsored by Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek.
The measure asks state agencies, the judicial system, and public and higher education to document what strides they have taken to reduce contributions to the air pollution problem.
Information would be compiled by the agencies in counties where air quality is an issue. Details would then be submitted on those mitigation efforts to the legislatively created Economic Development Task Force.
Arent said she worked with Gov. Gary Herbert's environmental adviser, Alan Matheson, to craft the bill, which will spotlight the good work already being done by government agencies on the air pollution front and highlight where steps can be taken to improve impacts.
Such practices agencies could outline include encouragement of telecommuting, ride-sharing or discounts on mass transit passes.
The committee, however, left untouched a proposal to let the state Division of Air Quality impose rules that are more stringent than federal clean air standards.
While they toyed with the intriguing idea of tailoring air pollution measures to Utah's unique geography and climate, some committee members wondered aloud if it would unleash arbitrary power that would come back to haunt Utah lawmakers.
They voted to adjourn without taking action.
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