Utah’s Fine Particulate Air Pollution Problem published in Utah OnLaw

Utah’s poor air quality received national attention two years ago after we swept the list of the 5 U.S. cities with the worst air quality during the winter. Salt Lake was even ranked among the “10 most toxic cities” by Forbes. The American Lung Association gave Salt Lake and Uintah counties an F for air quality in 2013. That report card has held steady or worsened according to the more recent data with other counties falling into the C grade.

The legislature responded with an education campaign, but actual policy making has been slow thus far. When a state fails to meet EPA standards for air quality, the state must submit a plan to get the problem under control. The EPA rejected Utah’s initial plan and even the revised plan has been criticized as unlikely to produce real improvement.

Professor Arnold Reitze, a nationally recognized expert in air quality law, recently published a paper on Utah’s specific air quality problems and explains the interplay between federal and state air quality laws. Notably, Utah’s plan seems to rely on the federal government and the provisions that are within our control will probably need to be more stringent to make any real progress. Professor Reitze’s article is a must read for those that want to understand Utah’s air quality issues and advocate for meaningful change.

First, the state’s plan identifies mobile sources (like cars) as the most significant source of emissions, and rightly so. But because mobile sources are regulated by the federal government, this requires us to rely on the federal government in order to make any progress. Utah is a state that prides itself on its independence and good management. So why are we depending on the EPA to clean up our air? Utah could implement and expand programs encouraging drivers to purchase vehicles with lower environmental impacts.

Second, with regard to area sources, a wood burning ban like the one currently proposed could go a long way toward cleaning the air. As Governor Herbert noted in his State of the State address, “burning one log for an hour is equivalent to driving an automobile from Salt Lake City to St. George and back again.” Some are skeptical that the measure will have any real teeth.

Third, with regard to point sources (industry), Professor Reitze argues that Utah is using whatever reductions that the EPA does mandate on mobile sources to grant exemptions to point sources. So we simply trade air pollution from cars for air pollution from industries like refineries. Utah needs to review its permitting and exemption process.

Fourth, the we need to reassess our reporting mechanisms to ensure that we are capturing data on the most harmful pollutants.

Fifth, the professor recommends research into integrating transportation planning into the state’s plan, which might reduce our reliance on the EPA to regulate mobile sources.

Sixth, and perhaps most importantly, the legislature needs to empower Utah’s Department of Air Quality more authority to mandate changes to mass transit, highway construction, discouragement of urban sprawl, building code revisions, and efforts to support energy conservation. Again, depending on the EPA is not going to solve our air quality problems.

Finally, a brief comment on the tragedy of the commons–the tendency among people to deplete shared resources because no individual has an interest in maintaining them. In an earlier post, I compiled a list of suggestions that interested individuals can implement to make a difference. Even though we are each only a small part of the problem, we can encourage each other to take small steps to be part of the solution. Indeed, how can we fault our legislature for its inaction if we are unwilling to take action ourselves?

Professor Reitze concludes, “Whether it is idling automobiles or burning wood during inversions, the challenge for the legal system is to devise ways to protect the common need for an atmosphere that is safe while having the minimum adverse impact on the economy and personal freedom.”

Professor Reitze’s article, Utah’s Fine Particulate Air Pollution Problem is available here.

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