2010 Feb. 9: UT: Utah Air standards ever changing
Deseret News editorial
This time of year, when inversions trap dirty air in Utah’s valleys, it’s obvious that Utahns should do more to improve air quality.
In many respects, Utah has made considerable improvements in air quality due to the advent of cleaner burning fuels and high performance automobile engines. Few people or businesses burn coal for heat anymore. Public transportation, particularly light rail and commuter rail, has taken a considerable number of cars off the road.
Some of the improvements were the result of federal laws that set attainment benchmarks. These have largely been changes for the better.
But the Environmental Protection Agency’s continual tinkering with the standards and its "proposed disapproval" of the state’s plan to monitor and bring under control particulate matter pollution have frustrated state regulators. It’s almost as if the state has entered a five-mile race, only to learn the finish line has been moved another mile. Or as Ernie Wessman, chairman of the state’s air quality control board, lamented at a recent meeting of the group, "It’s like having to follow a rule you don’t know exists."
Not only is this frustrating from a regulation standpoint, federal transportation dollars are on the line.
Other than natural and exceptional events such as dust storms, fireworks displays or smoke from wildfires, Utah has been able to keep PM10 levels below the EPA’s 24-hour standards established in 2005 — even during the worst winter inversions.
Two years later, the agency enacted a new rule that says "natural and exceptional" events have to be included in required counts, even if they push the rolling average above acceptable standards.
No wonder state regulators are at wits end. State and local governments could, conceivably, impose strict regulations about fireworks displays. But they have no control over natural events that pollute the air such as wildfires or dust storms. To threaten federal transportation funds — some of which include funding for mass transit — seems shortsighted.
The state air quality control board plans to send a letter to EPA officials explaining why it feels the state’s plan still meets the criteria that was in play when it was submitted five years ago. Federal officials need to take time to consider the unique characteristics of the Mountain West and the state’s earnest efforts to reach federal standards that, over the years, have become more stringent.