SALT LAKE CITY — Fearing federal sanctions that could include the loss of highway money and tighter regulations for emissions, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Tuesday launched a voluntary effort to clear the state's dirty air.
The statewide initiative will focus on educating people about ways to reduce even small amounts of pollution, Herbert said. The state will also build partnerships with industry and business leaders, local governments and citizens groups.
Utah has struggled with increasingly polluted air, especially when smog gets trapped in the heavily-populated northern valleys during winter. Federal regulators have warned the state to reduce the pollution level or face penalties, an action Herbert said could hurt the state's economy.
"We can address our problems better than the federal government," Herbert said. "I believe the people of Utah will respond ... if we don't, we do have to worry about stronger medicine" from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Known as "U-CAIR," the program is modeled on conservation and recycling programs that were successful by convincing people to take small steps on their own, Herbert said. It also encourages more businesses to provide alternative ways to commute, such as carpools or transit passes.
Mining and manufacturing industries will be asked to participate by using equipment that minimizes pollutants, especially oil and gas companies operating in in eastern Utah's Uintah Basin. Pollution levels in that area are currently being studied by the state.
Although the initiative doesn't increase penalties or force participation, Herbert said he expects people will join the effort.
"People are going to say if there isn't a stick to punish people with, it's not going to work," Herbert said. "I disagree. I think people will work together because it's in all of our best interests."
Along with looming federal regulations, the state is also facing legal action because of a permit that will potentially allow for the expansion of the Kennecott copper mine in the Salt Lake valley. The lawsuit, filed last month by a group of doctors, mothers and other activists, said the expansion will result in increased pollution at a time when the state can ill-afford it.