Utahns should breathe easier, thanks to the new federal Clean Air Act, according to a state health official.

But a local environmentalist thinks compromises that cheat the West will water down the final version of the bill, a massive 700-page book that is close to receiving Congress's stamp of approval.The difference of opinion over the quality of the new regulations designed to regulate environmental quality seems fitting for a bill that took 13 years to make it into law books.

"I think it's a giant step," said Ken Alkema, director of the Utah Division of Environmental Health. "Overall, the bill is very good. If we'd gotten out of this Congress without a Clean Air Act, we would have taken two giant steps backwards."

Alkema likened adoption of the act to the more familiar yearly debate over the federal budget. "It's been as complex - or more so - than the budget discussions that are going on," he said. "It has taken, literally, 13 years to work out all the compromises."

The last federal clean air legislation was passed in 1977. Three years ago, about 60 percent of the country's urban areas remained out of compliance with that pollution law. The new regulation allows for growth, yet it pushes factories, automakers and utilities to cut pollution dramatically over the next decade. Cleaner-burning fuels and cleaner-running autos are also emphasized.

But Lawson LeGrande, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, said the bill includes too many loopholes that nod to population growth. "Under the law, emissions would be allowed to grow. That's the bottom line."

Although he's grateful the bill was passed, LeGrande said it isn't strong enough in regulating coal-fired power plants and coke emissions produced by steel plants, such as Utah County's giant, Geneva Steel.

Geneva will have until 2020 to clean up its emissions, and that's too long, LeGrande said. "My 11-year-old daughter and my 9-year-old son will be middle-aged before those coke ovens in the steel plants will be cleaned up. We've got a major polluter down at Geneva Steel," he said. "I think clearly we've got to make sure - no matter what the federal law says - Geneva cleans up before then.

Alkema said the good news about the federal bill is supplemented by a new report - titled the "Implementation Plan for Fine Particulate" - issued Wednesday by Utah's Air Conservation Committee. The plan would ask industry and wood-burning stove owners to voluntarily reduce emissions.

Utah's push for cleaner air has been waged loudly in Utah County, Geneva's back yard, where the air pollution exceeded federal health standards 30 days last winter.

Gary Bryner, a Brigham Young University political science professor and member of the county's Clean Air Coalition, thinks the bill will pose challenges.

Bryner is writing a book on the federal clean air law, scheduled for publication early next year. He thinks passage of the federal legislation offers Utah an opportunity to make giant strides toward cleaner air.

"If states are willing to invest resources to make the new provisions effective, it has the ability to make a difference in air quality," he said.

Some aspects of the bill, including control of stationary sources and use of automobiles and alternative fuels, could have been strengthened, he said. But the advantages of the bill outweigh its disadvantages. "Along the Wasatch Front, our main challenge will be to develop transportation control measures, and those aren't very strong in the bill."


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Clean Air Act highlights

The new clean air legislation would:

- Slap polluters with harsher criminal penalties, which the federal government tried to do but failed in the wake of the Exxon oil spill.

- Allow states to require transportation control measures in designated areas. For example, when a new road is built, UDOT would have to prove that new construction wouldn't cause pollution exceeding federal standards.

- Mandate that states regulate 190 toxic airborne chemicals; few are currently controlled.

- Create stricter permits regulating pollution-causing industries such as Geneva in Utah County, Kennecott in Salt Lake County and MagCorp in Tooele County.