The quality of Utah's air - both inside and outside of buildings - is on the minds of state legislators this session. Then again, so are a lot of other environmental issues.
All told, lawmakers are considering dozens of bills that have some effect on the environment. This week alone, there has been lengthy and spirited debates over controlling cigarette smoke in restaurants, prohibiting cement plants from burning hazardous waste and tightening Utah's law concerning vehicle emission.Wednesday, a Senate committee approved a rewrite of a bill that seeks tighter control on cigarette smoking in restaurants. Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, wants restaurants to be inspected by local health department officials who, in turn, would certify that the restaurant meets a 1976 indoor smoking act that says smoke from the designated smoking area can't get into the non-smoking section.
Hillyard said secondhand smoke causes at least 3,700 deaths a year in lung cancer and is a much greater health risk than asbestos - "And we are spending millions of dollars removing asbestos from public buildings."
While senators want to improve the air Utahns breathe inside buildings, representatives were turning thumbs down on another Senate proposal that would have helped clean up the air outside.
By a 32-39 margin, the House rejected SB40, which would have required students attending college in Salt Lake and Utah counties to have their cars meet federally mandated emissions standards, even though the students may live in counties that do not have such emissions requirements.
Later this session, the House will consider HB146, a bill that requires the sellers of new car batteries to accept old batteries for recycling and prohibits the disposal of used batteries in public dumps.
"One battery can contaminate a huge amount of groundwater," said Rep. Grant Protzman, D-North Ogden. "Yet these batteries are 100 percent recyclable."
Protzman's bill, which imposes strict guidelines on battery retailers and wholesalers, has the support of the battery industry.
In addition to addressing issues like planting more trees and using natural gas as an alternative to gasoline in government cars, the Legislature Wednesday placed new recycling containers in Capitol halls to handle the flood of paper discarded daily.
Lawmakers last year passed a resolution encouraging state government to use only recycled paper. But because the Legislature itself has done little to practice what it preaches, Rep. Joanne Milner, D-Salt Lake, set up the recycling bins to draw attention to the problem.
"It's disgusting the amount of trees we cut down just to meet the needs of the Legislature each year," she said. "Maybe it's a small way to get some of that back."
Recycling is also on Rep. Ted Lewis' mind. He wants a tax incentive to create a market for recycled plastics. Currently, recyclable plastics are shipped out of state.
"There's a lot of enthusiasm right now for recycling, but we need a market for the recycled materials," Lewis said. "There is no market in Utah now for recycled plastics."
Other bills with a fighting chance of passage before the session ends:
- A bill creating a Department of Environmental Quality to oversee all environmental issues in the state.
- A bill making a $10,000 appropriation to continue a program in which schoolchildren plant and care for trees.
- A bill offering incentives to government entities who convert their vehicles to burn cleaner fuels, like propane and natural gas.
- A bill requiring users of pesticides to better comply with labeling directions.
- A bill prohibiting asphalt and cement kilns from burning hazardous wastes without meeting state disposal guidelines.
But the bill attracting the most attention this session Hillyard's restaurant smoking bill. The latest version places a $300 fee for the initial inspection and a $150 yearly renewal fee thereafter. If smoke does get into non-smoking areas, the health department can levy a $250 fine. Subsequent violations come with another $250 fine and closure of the smoking section from one to seven days.
Hillyard said the bill just enforces current law and places civil penalties in addition to the current criminal penalties.
A state health official said perhaps half of the restaurants in the state are out of indoor clean-air compliance, and that it's often the case that 20 percent of the air in a smoking section is recirculated to the non-smoking section.
Ron Morgan, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, opposes the bill saying the fees and civil penalties are too burdensome. Sen. Craig Peterson, R-Orem, himself an engineer, said it could cost a restaurant the size of Sizzler Steak House $250,000 to ensure compliance.