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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
The sun rises over the smog-filled Salt Lake Valley on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — An effort by a Layton lawmaker to establish a demonstration project to upgrade a few of the dirtiest diesel railroad freight switchers gained preliminary approval Tuesday after a unanimous committee vote.

The House Natural Resources, Agricultural and Environmental Committee unanimously gave a thumbs up to HB98, sponsored by Rep. Steve Handy, R-Utah.

Handy's bill carries a one-time general fund appropriation of $2.1 million, covering 35 percent of the costs to upgrade or improve three of the six dirtiest diesel freight switchers, which move railroad cars around.

About 63 of the freight switchers exist in a trio of railroad yards along the Wasatch Front, including Salt Lake City and Ogden — both nonattainment areas for federal Clean Air standards for PM2.5.

Union Pacific would pick up 25 percent of the costs of the project, while 45 percent of the costs are eligible for a federal grant reimbursement.

Glade Sowards, with the Utah Division of Air Quality, said six of the those freight switchers are "Tier Zero" and are model years in a range from 1973 to 2001.

Although there are newer standards, the equipment can be remanufactured to fall under that lower standard, which are governed strictly by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Sowards said what would help Utah is to get those older freight switchers phased out, with encouragement offered by states to the EPA.

"We don't have authority to make new standards for these freight switchers."

Such an evolution in standards would result in an 89 percent reduction per unit in nitrogen oxides and an 88 percent reduction in PM2.5, he said.

With the demonstration project, the removal cost per ton of emissions is about $9,500, which Sowards says falls within feasible industry costs. The money would come from the $100 million in one-time money Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has recommended for pollution busting programs.

Ashley Miller, policy director for Breathe Utah and vice chairwoman of the Utah Air Quality Board, said the board endorsed Handy's bill as well as a corresponding HCR03, encouraging EPA to put its weight behind stricter emission standards.

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Nathan Anderson with Union Pacific said the change out involves repowering the internal mechanisms of old freight switchers with new equipment, but with an old shell.

Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, wondered aloud at a company with record profits not pursuing upgrades on its own and said he disliked the idea of encouraging tougher regulations from the EPA. He voted for the demonstration project bill, but he and two other committee members voted against Handy's resolution.

One woman who came to testify urged passage of the freight switcher measure, noting the state provides financial incentives to private companies frequently, including the film industry.