Op-ed: It’s up to voters to ensure Utah’s air quality improves

First Published      Last Updated Dec 02 2016 02:33 pm

Our warm and windy weather made 2014-15 a not-too-bad air quality winter along the Wasatch Front. Good fortune stopped pollution from our cars, buildings and industry from congealing and darkening the skies into the lung-busting soup of winters prior.

But crossing our fingers isn't a formula we can rely on to protect our health and environment. We need bold legislation and voters to hold their representatives accountable when they fail to support good clean air bills and stop bad ones.

Unfortunately, legislators and voters this year suffered from blue sky-induced amnesia. While there were several significant air quality victories this session, the number of bad bills pushed this session was inexcusable, given our clear need for action.

As air quality advocates, we had high hopes prior to the session. In October, the Governor's Clean Air Action Team, an independent, bipartisan group of nearly 40 business, political and cultural leaders, released a strong list of air quality recommendations, many of which were easily translated into legislation for the 2015 session. In addition, for the second January in a row, thousands of Utahns rallied at the State Capitol demanding that legislators prioritize air quality.

Disappointingly, because of the pressure of influential industries such as homebuilders, realtors and the hearth industry, bills surfaced this session that directly contradicted the recommendations of the bipartisan Clean Air Action Team. These bills promised to stifle efforts at improving air quality and, in some cases, to increase emissions.  

Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, president of a home building company, sponsored a bill, HB285, that would delay the adoption of updated building, fire and energy codes in Utah from every three years to every nine years.

This senseless bill, which narrowly failed at the end of the session when time ran out, would have stripped Utahns of the ability to buy homes with modern energy and cost-saving measures. Not only do lax codes lead to increased emissions from our homes, but this bill would have cost new homeowners thousands and thousands of dollars over the life of their homes while saving home builders like Wilson a few bucks in construction costs.

Another notable example of inversion recidivism was Rep. Brad Dee's bill to take Utah several serious steps backwards in limiting the hazards of dangerous wood smoke. Written by the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association and shepherded by high-priced lobbyist and former legislator Greg Curtis, HB396 would not only take away the Air Quality Board's ability to impose a seasonal ban on wood burning, it also would override current state safeguards limiting wood burning on yellow on red air days.

In addition to being an unapologetic encroachment on executive authority, the wood burning bill was incredibly unnecessary as the Air Quality Board – after the tidal wave of criticism they got this winter – is about as likely to impose a seasonal burn ban as they are to start firing up cigars at board meetings.

Sometimes it's the bad bills and votes that show how far we have to go to convince the Legislature to act on clean air, and sometimes it's the words. When Sen. Margaret Dayton rose to oppose a bill that would have brought penalties for industrial polluters that knowingly break the law in line with EPA standards — an update that Utah hasn't made in 34 years — she argued that she would oppose the bill on the grounds that it would encourage "tattling to law enforcement."

Apparently, Sen. Dayton believes that cracking down on lawbreaking polluters is a problem — but hazards to the health of Utah's citizens aren't.

This past session showed we have a long way to go. Yes, a few good bills passed and some new money will be spent. But, unfortunately, there remains a recalcitrant class of legislators actively thwarting clean air efforts. Only voters holding their representatives accountable will ensure Utah can have clean air far into the future.

Robert DeBirk is policy director for HEAL Utah. Ingrid Griffee is executive director for Utah Moms for Clean Air. Tim Wagner is executive director for Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. Alicia Connell is co-founder of Communities For Clean Air.