SALT LAKE CITY — Pollution challenged cities along the Wasatch Front, the Cache Valley and the Fairbanks, Alaska, region are moving from a "moderate" to "serious" classification under a proposal released Friday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The proposed rule to reclassify the nonattainment zones for PM2.5 — or wintertime smog — means Utah regulators will have to develop a new pollution plan by the end of 2017, with a goal of coming into compliance with federal thresholds for the pollutant by 2019.
Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality's air quality division, said the state's inability to meet the moderate classification stems in part from a 2013 stretch of inversions Salt Lake County experienced that bumped the area into noncompliance.
That year, too, was before a slate of new regulations came into effect aimed at decreasing pollutants from stationary and mobile sources like trucks or cars.
The state Air Quality Board adopted more than two dozen new rules aimed at curbing air pollution. The state is also requiring $450 million in new pollution controls for heavy industry that will be in place by 2018 and federal measures that boost vehicle fuel standards and mandate cleaner cars and trucks will kick in next year.
"Nothing changed overnight," Bird said. "This is just the administrative process contained in the Clean Air Act that the EPA uses to help states come into compliance with air quality standards. It puts a new focus on it and puts a new urgency on it because we have only a year to develop a new plan."
Bird said the division will dust off the PM2.5 plan completed in 2013 and later submitted to the EPA for review. Even at that time, air quality regulators did not believe the area would come into attainment by the deadline based on 24-hour spikes in pollution brought on by wintertime inversions.
The revised air pollution plan will come with additional pollution reduction requirements for "heavy" polluters, or those that have emission precursors that help form PM2.5 — greater than 70 tons per years.
But Bird said the Wasatch Front's pollution profile is dominated by emissions that come from homes or other stationary sources and cars. The trick is to find ways to keep those pollutants at bay while the population continues to grow, he said.
"Because we are growing so quickly, we need to find ways to do what we do and cause less pollution," he said.
Bryce added that a new rule requiring less polluting water heaters for homes will help, and the state will continue to look for other ways to harness pollutants.
HEAL Utah, a clean air advocacy group, has been at the table for years with air quality regulators, urging industry reforms and tightened pollution controls.
Its executive director, Matt Pacenza, said the EPA's proposed new rule is good news.
"Wasatch Front communities have been failing to meet the Clean Air Act's health standards for more than nine years now," he said. "2017 will be critical for making the best possible plan to meet those targets and protect our families for years to come."
As the public comment process continues into mid-January, air quality regulators will begin meeting with representatives from potentially impacted businesses and industries, as well as other interested parties.