An air of fragile optimism surrounding the possibility that Utah lawmakers would take action to clean up the Wasatch Front's filthy air was shattered today when state senators refused to vote on a bill that would have allowed Utah to pave its own path toward cleaner air.
Senate Bill 164 would have freed Utah from limiting federal standards, allowing the Beehive State to enact clean air laws that are more stringent that those required by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Clean-air advocates told the House Natural Resources, Agriculture & Environment Committee that the one-size-fits-all approach to environmental regulations in the nation doesn't work for Utah.
“Those rules cannot adequately protect the children who live in all of those environments,” said Ingrid Griffee, a member of the group Moms for Clean Air, who addressed the committee. Changing the law, she said, will “give local people the power to at least discuss further options to protect kids in Utah.”
A contingency of manufacturing, mining and oil refining representatives spoke against the bill. These men told the committee that state law already allows Utah to unhinge itself from federal control, and assured members of the committee that enough is being done to combat air pollution.
“Manufactures have been asked to do more than the standards require,” said Jim Holtkampt, chairman of the Utah Manufacturers Association's Air Committee, referring to measures approved in the State Implementation Plan (SIP). The SIP, approved by the state's Division of Air Quality Board in January, outlines a program to clean Utah's air that will just barely comply with federal air standards by 2019. “The bull's-eye is on our back,” Holtkampt continued. “What we don't want to see is more stringent rules that cost more money that don't have any benefit.”
Several clean-air advocates say that bowing to federal standards has had a “chilling effect” on Utah solving its problem. Even Bryce Bird, director of the Division of Air Quality, addressed the “chill,” noting that not being able to think bigger than what the federal government suggests can stifle well-intentioned efforts to tackle unique local air pollution problems.
Lee Peacock, a spokesman for the Utah Petroleum Association, said refiners have “invested mightily over the last decades” on air-quality improvements, and he urged the committee to stick with the state's current “healthy process,” which will “protect us from getting out ahead.”
But permitting Utah to think outside the box, said Matt Pacenza, policy director for the group HEAL Utah, would not open the door to vast anti-business regulations in Zion. He pointed out that when the air-quality board was passing its SIP, Pacenza and a roughly 100 others protested the measures as too soft. Nevertheless, the board, weighted with industry representatives, voted overwhelmingly (one person dissented) to approve the SIP.
“This is hardly a board that is poised to make Jim Holtkampt's life a disaster,” Pacenza said. “If we remove this statute we give our air quality regulators a chance to be a little bolder.”
Up for debate was the efficacy of a current Utah law that allows regulators to make certain findings that would permit laws more stringent than those imposed by Washington. Industry representatives say this law provides an adequate process to execute these regulations. But these findings have never been made. In the 24 years since its been on the books, Holtkampt insisted it has been used once, though many say it has never been used.
Pacenza says he believes Utah regulators could take advantage of the current process that allows regulators to determine whether Utah needs stricter laws than those imposed by the federal government, but they have not. “Since it isn't seeing any good purpose, let's open up the possibilities” of cutting out the current rule, he said.
Pacenza says SB164 might be dead, and he called the hearing “particularly frustrating” since it largely involved a back-and-forth between representatives from polluting industries and legislators.
“What do you think [the industry] is going to say?” Pacenza asked. “That it's not needed.”
A similar bill will most likely be introduced in the House by Rep. Rebecca Edwards, R-North Salt Lake.
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