MIDWAY, Wasatch County — Several parts of Utah barely met air quality standards before the federal government tightened them. Now officials are preparing for the challenges of reducing emissions, combating inversions and teaching the public that it plays an important role in achieving clean air.

That's the message that Cheryl Heying, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, took to the annual Public Health Conference for Utah, a three-day gathering that drew health, education and environmental specialists to a multitopic discussion of public health.

"We were barely skimming by the old standard," she said Tuesday. "Now we have to cut emissions basically in half" to meet new standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Parts of Cache and Weber counties, all of Davis and Salt Lake counties and a segment of Utah County have struggled with the old standards, she said. But by 2012, all the states must have plans to meet new standards for PM 2.5 (particulate matter up to 2.5 micrometers in size). And air quality itself has to show improvement by 2014.

The federal government also tightened ozone standards, something six counties — Box Elder, Tooele, Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah — already struggled with at times, she said.

The state is looking at all sorts of things to help improve air quality, including stack scrubbers, dust suppressors, tighter vehicle inspection standards, regulations on wood-burning stoves and other things, feeding data into computer models to see what needs changing to make an adequate difference.

But air quality is not subject to a quick fix, Heying said. It's affected by many things, from vehicle emissions and winter inversions to pollution blowing in from China or offshore emissions from shipping traffic on the coast.

That "something in the air" may have come from California brush fires, or it could be entirely homegrown, like our winter inversions, she said. Even cows affect air quality.

"It's important the EPA recognize we're all upwind of somebody, and we're all downwind of somebody."

There's no question that vehicle emission standards are going to get tougher to meet new standards, she said. The good news is new vehicles themselves are getting cleaner. So is some of the fuel they burn. Heying said that, within 20 years, cars will produce about one-fifth the emissions they do now.

Other tools include retrofitting diesel school buses and educating people not to idle vehicles, a big source of bad air. The division also provides air quality forecasts to help people "make proactive choices." The choices may include limiting trips on bad air days or combining errands, among others.

Heying said she doesn't think people have yet achieved an "adequate margin" to protect human health from bad air. Utah is, however, better off than states like California, which are struggling to meet 1999 air quality standards, which they should be able to implement by 2018.

While she said it's taking everyone longer to meet air quality standards than originally expected, she believes Utah will meet the new air standards. But it's going to take effort from everyone.


E-mail: lois@desnews.com