Utah Valley's hazy winter skies might lead local residents to believe otherwise, but a 2-year-old vehicle emissions inspection and maintenance program has made great strides in improving local air quality.

That was the conclusion of the latest annual report by the City-County Health Department on the inspection program, which began in 1986. The Environmental Protection Agency has called the Utah County program "one of the better managed programs in the country."The carbon monoxide standard in Utah County was violated only three times last year compared to 17 violations in 1987, said Ralph Clegg, supervisor of the emissions program. Federal guidelines allow counties to exceed carbon monoxide standards only once per year, after which violations are counted.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas known to aggravate various health problems.

Clegg attributes the valley's lingering haze to particulate pollution. "That's the most visible problem," he said.

The state is expected later this year to implement a program to cut down particulates. A State Health Department study released in January blames 66 percent of the county's particulates on the Geneva Steel plant.

"As for vehicle emissions, we're making a lot of progress there," he said.

More vehicles are passing emissions tests, and those that are failing are doing so at cleaner levels than the past two years.

EPA standards stipulate that carbon monoxide levels must not exceed nine parts per million parts of air over an eight-hour period. Last year's highs of 11 (twice) and 10 (twice) parts per million barely exceeded the standard. During previous years, Clegg said, violation highs typically exceeded 20 parts per million.

"That's an encouraging sign. We're not claiming a victory by any means. Our ultimate goal is to come in under those standards," he said.

"The percent of carbon monoxide is definitely going down. I feel the program is accomplishing what it was designed to do."

Clegg said carbon monoxide levels decreased about 25 percent last year compared to 1987 levels. As for hydrocarbons, he said Utah County hasn't exceeded allowed levels for several years.

"Many tons of carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons have not been emitted into the atmosphere of our valley as a result of the required testing and emissions-related repairs," the annual report says. "These reductions become extremely crucial when it is noted that the number of vehicle miles traveled is ever increasing."

The emissions program is the first phase of a two-phase program mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The second phase - including transportation-control measures to speed traffic flow throughout congested metropolitan areas - has yet to be implemented.

Provo City, which is doing major repairs this year on University Avenue, plans to install synchronized traffic lights to speed traffic flow. Clegg said increased use of mass transit is needed as well.

"There's still a lot to be done," he said.

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Over the limit

Number of Utah County violations of federal carbon monoxide standards:

1988 3

1987 17

1986 22

1985 11

1984 19