Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Smoke from nearby wildfires settles in the Salt Lake Valley on Thursday, July 5, 2018.

A recent report showing levels of hazardous air pollution have continued to drop across the country is encouraging news, but hard to enthusiastically embrace in these days of smoke-filled skies and warnings of unhealthy breathing conditions along the Wasatch Front.

The annual report on the nation’s air quality by the Environmental Protection Agency shows dramatic decreases in overall levels of particulate pollution over a period of decades, reflecting the effectiveness of policies aimed at reducing automobile and industrial emissions. Despite the progress, current efforts to ratchet back some emissions standards are troubling to the extent they may act to curb this beneficial trend.

In Utah, air quality remains at the top of citizen concerns, particularly during periods of winter inversions and as summer skies turn auburn from Western wildfires. In context, the EPA says the number of days every year in which pollution reaches “unhealthy” levels have sharply and steadily dropped in 35 major cities, including the Salt Lake City metropolitan area. In 2000, there were more than 2,000 days across those cities in which ozone or fine particulate pollution exceeded healthy levels. In 2016, there were fewer than 700 such days. In Salt Lake City, there were 28 such days in 2016, compared to 65 in 2002.

That’s an impressive trend given that it has coincided with significant population growth in Utah’s urban core and an expanding economy across the nation. Credit goes largely to federal efforts going back to the 1970s to enact more stringent emissions standards. The current administration has now ordered the EPA to loosen restrictions on state governments and businesses to conform to ranges of air quality attainment. The administration argues that regulations have become too burdensome and impede economic growth. This may be true. A counter argument — particularly poignant in Utah — is that economic growth is now directly tied to environmental quality as new businesses are reluctant to move to or remain in areas where the air is unhealthy.

In that regard, it is important that Utah officials continue efforts to improve air quality, regardless of Washington’s current posture. In California, state efforts to reduce emissions even beyond federal levels have helped reduce serious pollution problems without a broad negative impact on the state’s economy.

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Despite overall progress, air quality is still of paramount concern in Utah where the geography acts to trap pollutants during inversions, which can be harshly detrimental to public health. There is increasing evidence of a direct link, for example, between levels of air pollution and rates of lung cancer in Utah, which are disproportionately high for a state in which levels of tobacco use are below national averages.

That data should weigh on the minds of Utah policymakers who are in the process of crafting a statewide implementation plan for identifying overall emissions controls. There are legitimate concerns that overzealous regulation could hamper economic growth, and while the state should proceed carefully, it should focus on maintaining the higher objective of reducing emission levels to the point where there are fewer and fewer days in which Utahns are put at risk by simply breathing outside air.