As hazardous air pollution along the Wasatch Front prevented children from playing outside during recess Monday, an attorney with Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality was named the state’s attorney of the year for his work defending air-quality permits issued to oil refineries and a power plant.
High praise was given to Assistant Attorney General Christian Stephens, who, officials say, worked “tirelessly,” and sometimes even while he was on vacation, defending the DEQ against the lawsuits.
“It’s an honor to be recognized by my fellow attorneys,” Stephens said in a news release. “I enjoy working with the DEQ’s dedicated staff that provides much-needed support to tackle these legal issues.”
Clean-air advocates decried the timing of the award. The Wasatch Front has been mired in what DEQ classifies as “unhealthful” air, determined by the level of particulate matter in the air, which Monday afternoon hovered near .115 parts per million.
“The timing couldn’t have been more insensitive,” says Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment. “I’m not privy to the criteria that they may have used for that, but to award someone who is basically doing a great job of undermining public health seems like a real slap in the face not only to clean-air environmental groups but to the public in general.”
The lawsuits Stephens has been fighting on behalf of DEQ involve permits granted to Tesoro oil refinery, the Emery refinery and a natural-gas power plant in Sevier County.
Moench’s group filed the suit challenging the Tesoro permits, which he characterized as “unconscionable.”
Moench said the permits will allow the Tesoro refinery, located off Beck Street in Salt Lake City, to expand its refining operations.
Notably, it will be able to process the type of oil being extracted from the Uintah Basin.
Despite Moench’s and other organization’s best efforts to prevent heavy-polluting industries from gaining DEQ’s approval, he says, the state has never turned down such permits.
“That’s obviously an egregious commentary on the priorities of our state government,” he says. “Here is another way that the state is stabbing us all in the back.”
Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment intend to announce a lawsuit against recent air-quality permits given to the Holly refinery, located near Tesoro.
Moench said this string of permits will allow Holly to double its capacity, making billions in profits, while shipping the excess oil it refines to other states.
“Big oil gets billions in profit, Nevada and California get all the extra gas and Utah will get all the pollution,” he says. “If that makes sense to anyone here in Utah, then they've really got a distorted sense of priorities.”
Craig Anderson, division chief for the Attorney General’s Office’s environmental division, says the award had nothing to do with the politics surrounding air quality, and everything to do with his deputy’s work ethic.
“It’s not for advocating a particular point of view or anything like that,” he says. “It’s just for the work commitment; getting things done.”