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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Research analyst Mark Squire installs a filter in a Smart Air Sampler System at a monitoring station in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016. The system measures toxic compounds in the air.

SALT LAKE CITY — The state's main air quality monitoring center is housed in a warehouse at a West Valley strip mall, across the way from a truck stop where big rigs come and go all day.

The facility does not meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, and its location means state employees are using up valuable time by driving from their Salt Lake headquarters to analyze data, and adding to the Salt Lake Valley's air pollution problems.

A new $6.3 million center planned on state property adjacent to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality in Salt Lake City is part of Gov. Gary Herbert's budget proposal for fiscal year 2017 and among the top priorities for the agency during the 2016 Legislature.

"It is a long-term investment in environmental monitoring," said Bryce Bird, director of the department's Division of Air Quality. "We know the environment is important to all of us, and allowing us to invest in a building that is important to the work that we do provides us with more reliable information and allows us to do our work more efficiently."

Department of Environmental Quality Director Alan Matheson said that the equipment used to measure pollution is sensitive to temperature, vibrations and humidity — and the current situation is less than ideal for an agency tasked with providing real-time information on levels of pollution and making three-day forecasts for air quality conditions.

Ultimately, the department's water quality division will also be able to store and use its equipment in the new center, which will also allow the state to save money by not having to pay leases on commercial property, Bird said.

Herbert's budget also includes one-time funding of $2.2 million to replace aging air quality monitors, of which close to half are beyond their "shelf life" of five years.

"We have tried to maintain the integrity of the data," Matheson said. "Understanding what is in the air and its qualities is the foundation of our efforts to protect the people of Utah," but the state of the equipment poses challenges.

This year's legislative session promises a whole host of air quality initiatives designed to boost efforts to cut down on air pollution levels that have put the majority of the Wasatch Front out of compliance with federal clean air standards.

The problem

Extreme cold, snow cover and geography combine to create the area's notorious temperature inversions, trapping pollution from industry, motorists, businesses and homes. Two years ago, the state's largest public rally convened on the steps of the state Capitol as clean air advocates and families pushed for legislative action to help cut air pollution.

Even as the state grapples with putting a lid on those pollutants through regulation and enforcement, those legislative fixes — such as alternative fuel vehicle rebates, money for equipment upgrades and more stringent residential building codes — loom as possibilities this session to help residents do their part.

"We are hearing from our constituents more," said Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, co-chairwoman of the Legislature's Clean Air Caucus. "Last year, when we had fewer inversions, we did not hear from them as often. This year, with the problem we have had from inversions, we are hearing from them."

Arent is planning to run a bill that would give taxpayers a chance to designate a contribution to clean air efforts when they file their returns. She's also running legislation that would make clear that electric vehicle charging stations or battery storage would qualify for financing under the Property Assessed Clean Energy program, or PACE.

Multiple clean air and clean energy advocacy organizations joined Arent in identifying updates to residential building codes as a key legislative priority that would have the most signficant impact on reducing pollution.

With Utah's population expected to nearly double in the next 35 years — coupled with cleaner burning cars being phased in by manufacturers — it is people's homes that are expected to be the No. 1 cause of pollution in the decades to come. As it is right now, the state estimates buildings are the cause of 40 percent of the area's pollution.

"If the new codes are adopted, it would improve the efficiency of homes by 15 to 20 percent," said Matt Pacenza, executive director of HEAL Utah.

The adoption of updated building codes for homes and commercial buildings is not a push coming simply from "tree huggers," Pacenza said, but is a recommendation pushed by the Governor's Clean Air Action Team and supported by the Governor's Office of Energy Development.

"It would have a profound impact on our air quality," echoed Sarah Wright, executive director of Utah Clean Energy.

Solar energy

Both groups are also expecting a few bills related to solar energy, including one that would tackle restrictions on rooftop solar imposed by some homeowners associations and another that would make leasing rooftop solar power an option to bring down upfront costs for interested residents.

Dan Black, associate general counsel for Vivint Solar, said Utah remains one of only three states in the country that does not allow power purchase agreements for residential or commercial customers, where customers purchase only the power they need.

Under such an agreement, the solar power system provider is responsible for the installation, maintenance and operation of the system, and the consumer pays only for the power that is needed.

"The citizens of this state want the opportunity and ability to take advantage of this choice," Black said. "It boils down to giving the customer the right to choose green, clean, renewable energy and the fact that people want to be their own power plant."

Black added that legislation that proposes to deal with restrictive covenants invoked by homeowners associations would prohibit unreasonable restrictions on the placement of solar power systems.

"This is one very clearly where Utah needs to catch up with the times," he said. "There are residents in St. George who have voiced concerns about constraints being placed on their ability to put solar on their rooftops."

The Department of Environmental Quality and advocacy organizations are also hoping lawmakers revive a Utah Air Quality Board rule that phased in low nitrogen oxide burning water heaters as people build new homes or replace what they already have.

The rule received unanimous support by board members and went up to a legislative committee for routine review, but after protest by the homebuilding industry, it died.

Pacenza said the low nitrogen oxide burning water heaters reduce those emissions by 70 percent, and estimates are that once completely phased in, that pollutant would be reduced along the Wasatch Front by as much as 2,700 tons. That, he added, is the equivalent of taking 300,000 cars off the road.

"They say there is no longer any low-hanging fruit when it comes to air quality, but actually water heaters are the low-hanging fruit," Pacenza said. "We are going to make a really specific, tangible clean air benefit at low or no cost. It's huge."

Herbert's funding requests also include $500,000 to continue the state agency's clean air retrofit and replacement program, which provides funding and financial incentives to businesses and individuals for the reduction of pollution.

"The purpose is to incentivize clean air technology," Bird said. "An electric lawn mower cuts the lawn very well. It does the same work as a gas mower, but with fewer emissions."

The incentives

Last year, the Department of Environmental Quality offered nearly 400 electric lawnmowers at a discounted price as part of the retrofit and replacement program.

"We want to be sure and continue that program because it has been very popular and useful to everyone," Arent said. "It has helped homeowners, individuals, businesses and government entities that want to replace equipment with new technology."

Addressing Utah's pollution problem is only as effective as the knowledge behind the strategies put into play, so lawmakers once again are being asked to pony up $250,000 to fund new research.

In 2014, the Utah Legislature funded $1 million to carry forward or initiate 14 projects and added $200,000 last year.

Researchers have looked at the contribution made by wood smoke from residential use of fireplaces or wood stoves, the effect of the Great Salt Lake on ozone formation and the mysterious chemistry behind ozone formation during the winter months in the Uinta Basin.

"It really has been vital," Bird said. "If we don't understand the chemistry and don't make the right choices," the agency isn't being as effective as it can be.

Arent said another priority of the Legislature's Clean Air Caucus is SB66 by Senate Assistant Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, which seeks to increase the financial penalties for those convicted of environmental crimes.

Under Escamilla's measure, the fines for people convicted of environmental crimes would more than double — $25,000 to $65,000 on class A misdemeanors and third-degree felonies — under a state law that has not been updated in since 1981.

Escamilla also proposed extending the statute of limitations on environmental crimes from one year to four, which Arent says only makes sense given the complex nature of cases involving intentional pollution of the air, ground or water.

The measure proposing to increase the fines was discussed in a committee hearing Wednesday but not voted on. The bill extending the statute of limitations on environmental code violations from five years to two passed a legislative committee on a 6-1 vote.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

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