A federal government delay has led to welcome additional time for Utah air quality officials to develop a model that replicates Utah's notorious wintertime inversions of unhealthy pollution levels.
"We know the public is anxious that we address this problem," but the federal delay has helped the state Division of Air Quality get its technical ducks in a row, said Bill Reiss, the agency's point man for putting the pollution control plan into motion.
Reiss gave an update Wednesday to members of the Utah Air Quality Board on the state's efforts to come into compliance with new federal "fine particulate" pollution standards.
Called PM2.5, the fine particles result from a variety of sources, compounded by Utah's wintertime inversions that act as a catalyst to convert more of the particles into unhealthy pollutants. High levels of those pollutants can lead to serious health problems, including heart and lung diseases and premature death.
The Environmental Protection Agency revised its national standards on acceptable levels of PM2.5 in 2006 and has been in debate with Utah over its areas of "non-attainment" for those standards. Utah air quality officials submitted a map of the Wasatch Front — Utah, Salt Lake, Davis, and portions of Weber and Cache counties — with the federal agency countering with geographic designations that also not only roped in Tooele and Box Elder counties, but included part of Franklin County, Idaho, as Utah's non-attainment zones.
The new designation has led to consternation on the part of Box Elder County leaders who have been working with Utah's congressional delegation to get the EPA to reconsider the lines drawn on the map.
"Our position is that it is not justified to include Box Elder County," Commissioner Brian Schaffer told board members Wednesday. "That may be why there is a delay because we've been working to get Box Elder and Tooele (counties) removed from the non-attainment areas."
The EPA was supposed to announce last December its deadline for Utah to come up with its State Implementation Plan to come into compliance with the new standard.
With that deadline still in limbo, Reiss said the agency has surged ahead to partner with Dugway and other agencies to map a whole spectrum of meteorological data designed to replicate inversion events in 2007 and 2008. Documenting wind speed, wind direction, relative humidity and a host of other factors, Reiss said the data are then being plugged in and pulled out on a hourly basis to see if they can "match what we see on the ground."
While the modeling is still in pencil and subject to change, the extra window of time has allowed the air quality division to get a jump on the process. "We're very encouraged by this," he said. "We're in pretty good shape technically."
The next step will be to assess the source of PM2.5 and arrive at ways to place controls over the pollutants, a process Reiss said will get the attention of both the industry and residents as potential new regulations are put into play.
"We will look at all possibilities for reductions in emissions, leave no stone unturned and we'll be very involved with people who have stake in this." he said.
Yellow air-quality alert issued due to smoke, ozone
Smoke from wildfires in Utah and California are combining with ozone to create pollution problems across the Wasatch Front.
The Utah Division of Air Quality has issued a "yellow day" alert for Thursday, urging people with respiratory conditions to take notice and then take necessary precautions.
Division director Cheryl Heying said air pollution levels are seeing a "bump" from what is usual due to wildfire smoke and people, if they're feeling the irritants, should act appropriately. "Use common sense and get out of it," she said.
Most of the smoke is high enough in the atmosphere that it shouldn't present a problem for the bulk of the population.
"It's not being trapped in the valley," she said, "but you can definitely smell it."
For more information on air quality conditions in Utah, go to www.airquality.utah.gov.