Environment & Public Lands
9:08 am
Tue December 4, 2012

Utah Facing Tough New Air Quality Regulations

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The Utah Air Quality Board will meet tomorrow to look at a new set of state regulations aimed at cleaning up winter air pollution.  The new rules would impose stricter standards in Cache County as well as the Wasatch Front.  The new plan has to meet standards set by the U-S Environmental Protection Agency, with federal highway funding at risk if it fails.

Fifty-year-old John Chevalier has been involved in the auto body business since he was 18. After managing dealer's body shops over the years, he now owns the largest independent collision repair service in Ogden, Utah. He says he’s conscious of the air quality issues associated with the chemicals he uses to fix vehicles.  And Chevalier says he’s mitigated those issues over the years.

“Even standing here with the paint going," Chevalier says as he opens the door of a spray booth, "you hardly even smell any paint or see any paint. Because it dissipates through the filter system, you know. We’re not putting very much of it in the air anyway, we’re using very little pressure, so most of the stuff we’re spraying is going on the vehicle instead of into the air.”

According to the new State Implementation Plan Utah must approve by mid-December, Chevalier’s business and others like it will now have to regularly track how much paint they buy, how much paint the spray and measure the amount of vapor’s those paints release into the air. Chevalier says he doesn’t have a problem complying with the new law, but he’s concerned with being penalized if he exceeds the limit the state has set.

“If you’re busy," he says,"and business causes you to generate more volume and then there is a penalty, how do you pay for that penalty?”

One of the new rules would require that body shops and bakeries, for example, pay fines up to $4000 for exceeding the 2000 pound limit on volatile organic compounds (VOC's) released into the air. Chevalier says a $4000 fine could cost someone their job. 

“Bakeries are going to lay people off, body shops are going to cut back," Chevalier tells KUER.  "You know it’s basically a tax that’s going to affect the economy. And in this economy, I think that’s probably a bad choice.”

Chevalier was among those offering testimony at a hearing in Logan, expressing his concerns online about the proposed regulations during a 30-day public comment period.

Right now, residents of the Wasatch Front counties have to get their cars tested every other year when they renew their license tags. But Cache County Council member Craig Petersen says that’s too much for Cache County. Peterson claims Cache County’s air quality is only bad for a few days each winter, and he says the program would cost a million dollars a year for only a slight improvement in air quality.

“So even though it’s been used in other places," Petersen says, "we’re not convinced that that’s a prudent policy for us.”

Cache County has endorsed a voluntary testing program that would give those who choose to participate a sticker to put in the back window.  Those who choose not to get their vehicles tested, would not be allowed to drive on bad air days.  Petersen acknowledges that would be a tough sell to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“What we’re looking for is some type of a compromise," he says."I should mention too, that if this comes to a confrontation between Cache County and the EPA, we know we’re going to lose. The EPA holds the trump cards.”

Maura Haunenberger studies meteorology and atmospheric science at the University of Utah. She says, while the new rules are a good first step, they’re not addressing Utah’s unique problem. “Really to bring us into attainment, we need to focus on when the air quality is actually the worst, which is during the inversion periods. “

Haunenberger says the state failed to include episodic controls in the plan, like reducing speed limits and having stricter rules for refineries and mining operations specifically on bad air days.

She says, “Our city is not set up for everyone to be taking public transportation but during these inversion periods we allowed free ridership say on UTA and we were able to take some people off the road than that would help to limit pollution during those specific times.”

State Air Quality officials admit the plan won’t bring the state into compliance with the new EPA rules immediately. They’ll likely apply for multiple extensions, which are permissible under federal guidelines. That’s the issue Kristin Urry has with the plan. She’s a licensed social worker in Salt Lake City.

"I have a serious problem when people in this state believe that we can’t do better than what we’re already doing," Urry tells KUER.

As a social worker, Urry often sees children who struggle to breathe at the height of the inversion season. She says most of those children are from low-income families who live in some of the most polluted areas along the Wasatch Front.  “Many of those families are without vehicles, so number one they’re not contributing to the pollution with their vehicles but they’re also riding the bus, walking significantly, taking children to and from school.”

Urry finds Utah’s poor air quality to be more and more a socio-economic problem that needs action now.

Bryce Bird is Director of the Division of Air Quality. He says what the EPA is requiring of the state is a tough standard to meet and will require about a 30 percent reduction in daily emissions along the Wasatch Front.

“But we need to do it," Bird says, "in a way that impacts industry, the community, the transportation sector as little as possible.”

Although the plan must be submitted to the EPA by December 14th, Bird says the state has until 2014 to bring itself into compliance.  After that, it can petition the EPA for one year extensions until 2019. But the state still has to show continued progress each year.

"So we can’t just say, we’re going to keep the emissions as they are and then fix everything in 2019," he says.  "It has to be a glide slope between where we are and where we’re meeting the standard.”

Regarding emissions testing in Cache County, Bird says the board believes it has the authority to move forward with the mandatory program, but it's evaluating all options.

KUER’s Dan Bammes contributed to this report.