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Critics Blast Bill to Take Power from Environmental Boards

by Eric S. Peterson
- Posted // 2012-02-08 -

Longtime environmental advocate Claire Geddes was one of several to criticize Senate Bill 21 at a committee Wednesday. The bill would take certain key powers away from a number of boards that currently include citizen representatives and put those powers in the hands of the director of the Department of Environmental Quality. Geddes blasted the bill as streamlining DEQ for the sake of the energy industry. “Isn’t it about time that we stopped worrying just about the industry and worried about the public?” Geddes asked

Members of the audience applauded Geddes and subsequently scoffed at committee member Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, when he said Utah’s environmental regulations were some of the most stringent on business and that Utah’s air was improving. But despite protests, the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee easily passed out the bill sponsored by Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem.

The bill seeks to shift certain authority away from review boards in the state that are represented by a mix of citizen, government, and public interest representatives. The five boards that would be affected are the Air Quality Board, Drinking Water Board, Radiation Control Board, Solid and Hazardous Waste Control Board and the Water Quality Board. These boards currently weigh in on permits, appeals and environmental plans affecting Utah’s energy industry. For example, the Radiation Control Board approves permits for the storage of nuclear waste in Utah by companies like EnergySolutions.

Under Dayton’s bill, those authorities would be taken away from the boards and given to an administrative law judge—but the judge’s decision would require final approval by the executive director of DEQ. Critics worried that since the DEQ director is appointed to the job by the governor, there could be too much potential for politics to interfere with environmental regulations. The bill would also reduce the number of members to the committees to nine members, where some boards currently hold as many as 13 members.

James Holtkamp, a member of the Utah Manufacturers Association and one of the stakeholders in helping Dayton draft the bill over the past two years, told the committee that the reorganization would actually increase public input into environmental hearings on policy and rulemaking, which, under the bill, would still be left to the authority of the boards.

“I want to stress this bill does not in any way, shape or form affect, diminish or impact the existing rights of third parties and the public to participate in rulemaking and appealing a permit,” Holtkamp said. Holtkamp added that if the functions are separated then board members would not be subject to restrictions against having ex parte -- or informal -- communications with companies or environmental groups involved in an appeals process—because the board wouldn’t be involved in the appeal function.

Therefore, Holtkamp argued, boards would be able to gather more public input on policy issues.

“We think this would allow boards to have more robust involvement in policy and rulemaking,” Holtkamp said. Regardless of whether or not the bill would foster more input on permit issues, it still would leave the final say with the DEQ director, a political appointee of the governor, and that power consolidation is what upset environmental advocates at the meeting.

Cherise Udell, founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air, a nonprofit with over 3,000 members in the state, reminded DEQ representatives at the meeting of their department’s mission statement posted on the DEQ Website.

“It says the mission statement of DEQ is to ‘safeguard the public health and our quality of life by protecting and enhancing the environment,’” Udell said. “Nowhere does it say ‘safeguard industry by protecting and enhancing their bottom line.’ Unfortunately, many of the changes being proposed here are unfortunately doing that, and are not putting the best interest of the public first and foremost.”

Ultimately, the committee disagreed and passed the bill out with a favorable recommendation, with only Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, voting against the legislation.

To find out who your legislator is so you can comment on this bill, click here. For SB 21 sponsor Margaret Dayton’s contact info, click here. For more updates from the 2012 Legislature, follow @EricSPeterson on Twitter.

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