Feds knock conflict disclosure on Utah air-quality board
Federal environmental regulators say Utah's current air-pollution oversight is not fair and open enough in some key areas.
In a notice published Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it was rejecting part of the state's air-pollution control plan because it does not specify adequate conflict-of interest disclosures for the Department of Environmental Quality's executive director, Amanda Smith, nor the Air Quality Board.
Utah Division of Air Quality Director Bryce Bird said Friday it's just a matter of getting papers in order, since the state already has adopted standards but hasn't yet incorporated them into the plan that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires.
"Now that we have this notice," he said, "we can take care of that."
The Air Quality Board is made up of nine members, with current membership that includes one representative from the refineries, one from manufacturing, one who's an advocate for the Uinta Basin energy industry and another from the state's largest polluter, Kennecott Utah Copper.
That sort of make-up is just what lawmakers had in mind when they changed the composition of all five Utah environmental boards last year.
The thinking goes that regulated companies understand the problems of environmental regulation best and can best guide the state's policies. The new regulation also shifts many final decisions on appeals and enforcement to the executive director.
In the Federal Register notice Friday on its plans to partly disapprove a part of Utah's over-arching air-pollution strategy, the EPA notes those changes eliminated key disclosure provisions.
Utah regulations on board members "no longer addresses the disclosure of potential conflicts of interest," the notice said.
"Neither the previous version nor the current version [of Utah environmental regulations] addresses the disclosure of potential conflicts by the executive director," the notice said.
But that's just in the over-arching plan that the state periodically gives to EPA it is properly implementing the Clean Air Act. Since the passage of SB21 last year, the board has adopted state-level regulations that address the concerns federal regulators are raising at this time, said Bird.
In addition, they have been coached on a two-page section on conflicts of interest and ethics in the "Board Member's Handbook" that details when board members, including the executive director, must disclose a potential conflict of interest.
The Utah Manufacturer's Association helped write the bill. And while it was being discussed in the Legislature, the EPA wrote to Smith to point out that some more tinkering might be needed to fully harmonize the state's regulations with federal requirements.
Jeremy Nichols of the environmental watchdog group, WildEarth Guardians, said the good-government provisions are important because they ensure that the panel's doing the public's business fairly and openly.
"You don't want companies regulating themselves," said Nichols. "The last thing you want to do is put the fox in charge of the henhouse."
The EPA, which did not respond immediately to a request for comment, will field comments on this latest review of the Utah's clean-air program for 30 days.