On Thursday, McGrath — now taking a break from his career to enjoy some globe trotting — met with environmental advocates in Salt Lake City to discuss the highlights of his tenure at the EPA, and his concerns about the agency's current direction. He also granted The Salt Lake Tribune an interview.
McGrath praised state environmental regulators and defended some of the controversial decisions to come out of the EPA in recent years — including the regional haze ruling that required new pollution systems at Rocky Mountain Power's Hunter and Huntington power plants in central Utah.
"In the past, relationships between the EPA and the states have been very strained," McGrath said in the wide-ranging interview.
"I think we have to find ways to work through difficult issues, but to do it in partnership," he said. "What marriage doesn't have challenges at times? We have got to find ways to work in partnerships because the challenges in our lifetime are greater than we have ever known."
Cleaner air • McGrath expressed optimism that Utah will eventually be able to resolve its ongoing struggle with small particulate pollution, known as PM2.5, a problem that has persisted for more than a decade.
"I'm optimistic that you'll be able to get there," McGrath said, "but it is going to take some concerted effort."
He said he was especially encouraged by Utah leaders' success in convincing Wasatch Front refineries to produce cleaner, so-called Tier 3 fuels for automobiles. Refiners recently agreed to begin making and distributing the cleaner fuels in Utah by 2019.
"That is going to help quite a bit here," McGrath said. "No other state in the country can benefit as much from Tier 3 fuels as Utah."
But Tier 3 fuels alone won't be enough to help Utah meet the PM 2.5 standard, McGrath said. Automobiles "contribute significantly to the problem," he said, "but they're not alone. Addressing them gets you part of the way, but you still need to address other sources to meet the standard, more than likely."
McGrath said he recognized that Utah was having a difficult conversation about wood-burning stoves. Gov. Gary Herbert recently approved restrictions on the regulation on open-air grilling.
"It's hard because, now you're talking about lifestyle," he said. "It's a nice thing to have a burning fire in the winter, yet, I think we have to really understand the impacts of doing that."
Ozone zones • McGrath was less optimistic about Utah's ability to comply with the EPA's new standards for ozone pollution, especially in the Uinta Basin, a region he said he sought to help more with ozone but ran out of time.
Unlike the Wasatch Front and most everywhere else, ozone builds up in the Uinta Basin during the winter, rather than in the summer.
Seth Lyman, director of Utah State University's Bingham Energy Research Center, told state lawmakers on Wednesday that scientists have only known ozone could occur during the winter for about a decade. Since then, he said, research has linked the issue to emissions from the oil and gas industry.
"Not because the industry is more polluting than anywhere else," Lyman said, "but because we have strong inversion meteorology there and because there is a large oil and gas industry."
McGrath said he worried that the current policy trajectory does not set eastern Utah on a course for improvement.
Residents in the Uinta Basin "have some real air quality problems," he said. "And with additional development underway — right now 3-4 projects proposed would double the amount of oil and gas wells."
McGrath defended the EPA's decision to decrease the amount of allowable ground level ozone from 75 parts per billion to 70 parts per billion, although he said he thought the Uinta Basin was unlikely to meet the standard regardless of the change.
Regional haze • McGrath also defended the choice to reject part of Utah's plan for managing visible air pollution or haze. Instead, the EPA imposed its own plan, which required regional utility Rocky Mountain Power to install additional pollution controls at two Utah power plants.
"We were very deliberate in our approach to it," he said. "We did a lot of work to understand the science, the legal framework. The public process took time. And, frankly, it was a hard decision.
"Sometimes matters come to you that are kind of no-brainers," he continued. "This wasn't one of those."
McGrath said he was heavily involved in the decision and acknowledged it was unpopular with state leaders and Rocky Mountain Power, which have joined in challenging the ruling in court.
"I went to Emery County," he said. "I went to Moab, to get a sense of what was at stake for the people of Utah … We really were thoughtful, and it's going to result in improvements in visibility, and, let's face it, Utah is a gem in that regard in terms of the national parks that are there."
McGrath said EPA's rejection of Utah's plan came down to a single technical detail. On that key issue, he said, the state failed to demonstrate it would improve visibility.
Rocky Mountain Power and state officials maintain their plan did meet federal requirements — and would improve visibility. They now hope their litigation will block EPA from imposing its own plan.
Paul Murphy, a spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power, has said that the court is waiting for word on whether the new administration will defend the EPA's previous decision.
"I don't know where the current administration is going, so I can't speak to that," McGrath said. "But I believe that our process was a solid process. I believe that the legal foundation it was based on was solid, and I believe the science was used in an appropriate manner… If there is an effort to roll that back, this administration will have to explain to the public why they think that's warranted."