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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Students get off buses at Farmington Junior High School in Farmington, Thursday, Jan. 22, 2015.

SALT LAKE CITY — Poor air quality and its adverse impacts to health have risen as a key concern for both policymakers and the public, threatening family health and quality of life, Utah's economy and the vibrancy of its outdoor recreation.

Solving the problem promises to be an issue that once again demands significant time and money from Utah's lawmakers this session.

A spate of bills has already been introduced, although advocates and the co-chairman of the Utah Legislature's Clean Air Caucus do not believe this session will be as active as 2014 when it comes to the number of measures filed.

"I think a lot of the focus this year will be on funding," said Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek. "Air quality will be a high priority again, but we want to make sure our funding is not just one-time. I see some important legislation coming forward."

The clean air effort also promises to capture the attention of a public dealing with January inversion.

Billed last year as the largest political protest in Utah's modern history, the "Clean Air No Excuses" rally in late January drew a boisterous crowd demanding action.

This year a similar event is slated from noon to 1:30 p.m. Saturday on the south steps of the Capitol and involves six advocacy groups, a local Lutheran pastor, and Utah musician and author Kurt Bestor.

"We are trying to make this clean air rally as relevant and timely as we can," said Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, adding that organizers want 10,000 people to attend. "We are hoping to make it feel more mainstream than last year."

Protecting children

The physicians group and HEAL Utah both are keeping an eye on air quality measures in the session this year. They mentioned Rep. Steve Handy's HB49 as a good proposal that did not pass last year that they hope prevails in this session.

Mirroring a recommendation from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, the bill would provide $20 million to change out the most polluting diesel school buses in the state fleet and to boost the fueling infrastructure for alternative-fuel buses.

Handy, a Republican from Layton, said $13 million of the funding would replace buses and be met by matches from local school districts, and the rest would augment refueling options.

Although Utah has been recognized as having the most aggressive diesel retrofit program in the country, already having changed out 1,041 buses in the fleet, Handy's bill calls for outright replacement of the worst of the worst diesel polluters.

Handy says there are about 170 of the buses that are "really, really, really," bad, posing not only air pollution problems in crowded metropolitan areas already out of compliance with federal clean air standards, but creating grave health risks to children.

"I have had people ask me if this is a transportation bill or a clean air bill, and it is both," he said. "You have to have kids get to school or you can't educate them, and you want them to arrive healthy, ready to work and not affected by fumes."

Multiple studies point to air pollution levels inside buses that can be greater than emissions outside the actual bus. Researchers have found that the elevated levels inside the bus are attributed to emissions from the bus itself that intrude into the cabin, a process sometimes termed "self-pollution."

One study found that average exposure to PM2.5 emissions or fine particulates on school buses was five to six times greater than ambient levels outside, and that exposures to both kinds of emissions and black carbon were determined to be higher than an average walking commute.

Another study from Los Angeles determined that diesel exhaust levels inside four sampled school buses were up to 400 percent higher than what was measured inside a passenger car driving directly ahead of the school buses.

Handy's bill addresses many of the buses that were manufactured before 2002 to get at some of the worst offenders. Because he doesn't want polluting buses to be sold to be some other state's health risk and pollution problem, the buses that will be replaced will be destroyed, not sold.

"This makes a certain and clear statement that school districts are committed to cleaner school buses, and we are not passing on the problem to someone else," Handy said.

The bill is identical to what Handy ran last year, but he believes with Herbert's support, as well as that of other groups, there will be more political traction to get the measure passed in 2015.

Change equipment

Herbert's budget also calls for increased funding for what's known as the CARROT program to change out dirty, polluting equipment that can include snowblowers or lawnmowers. The program received $200,000 last year, and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality believes the governor's request for an additional $1.5 million will make a significant dent in removing some of the most polluting equipment out there.

Moench said he believes there will always be a gap between what the advocates ask for in the arena of air quality and what lawmakers are willing to pass, but he said groups are not going to relent on efforts to hold industry to higher standards and to repeal Utah's "no more stringent" state law that prohibits the state from making tougher rules than the Environmental Protection Agency.

HEAL Utah Director Matt Pacenza said groups also hope to see another push for a local option sales tax with revenue directed at boosting mass transit, specifically adding more bus routes.

The measure passed overwhelmingly in the House last session but faltered the final night of the session in the Senate, never making it up for a vote.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16