Utah air-quality officials think they are close to completing a smog-busting plan for the Wasatch Front's winter pollution spikes just in the nick of time.
If all goes on schedule for the Division of Air Quality, the plan could be in place by the year's end. And that would mean averting a crackdown by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that could have choked development and transportation funding for the state's most populated counties.
It also would mean cleaner air sooner, said division Director Bryce Bird.
"The health effects are immediate," said Bird, "as soon as we get these rules in place."
But there's a big "if."
These positives will happen only if the plan passes an important test, a computer analysis of how the proposed pollution controls will work once they are all in place.
That test is set for Monday, and air-quality officials think they have swept the corners thoroughly enough that the plan will bring Utah into compliance with EPA's health-based standards for the fine-soot pollution known as PM2.5.
The overarching plans for the Wasatch Front would be the final, critical piece in the state's years-long effort to bring winter pollution in line with federal standards and to end those periods when a brown, unhealthy blanket of smog smothers northern Utah valleys, sometimes for weeks at a time.
Air-quality staff detailed the reasons for new optimism at a meeting Wednesday of the Air Quality Board, which heard how updated emissions tallies, further pollution reductions by industry and new clean-car standards appear to add up to significant reductions.
"I'm apprehensive," said Susan Hardy, an air-quality expert with of the Mountainland Association of Governments, who added that she is eager to see what the latest number-crunching shows. "I'm still staying hopeful. We just might be able to make it."
She noted that as recently as May, after more than three years of looking for pollution solutions, the air-quality office found it still needed to reduce pollution an additional 10 percent to meet the EPA standard, which is 35 micrograms of PM2.5 pollution per cubic meter of air.
To reach the EPA target level of 52 tons of pollution on a typical winter day by 2019, Utah County needed to cut another 10 tons of emissions. And the Salt Lake County area, which also includes parts of Box Elder, Tooele, Davis and Weber counties, needed to eliminate another 22 tons of pollution to reach a 227-ton target.
What's changed with the new analysis is that the picture looks more optimistic if you factor in the latest information, which now includes the emissions data from 2012. That data is more comprehensive, and a better measure of what is going on pollution-wise on a typical winter day, air-quality officials reported to the board Wednesday.
Another key factor is new federal regulations intended to slash the pollution that comes from passenger cars and trucks. Those regulations, dubbed "Tier 3," were proposed by the Obama administration in March and will officially go into effect in four years, making cars and fuel cleaner.
Still more emissions reductions are expected from smokestack industries in the five-county area covered by the plan. Air-quality officials have been in meetings with those companies, and they estimate that better pollution controls at key companies, including the refineries and Kennecott Utah Copper, will mean a reduction of about 2,000 tons of key emissions a year.
The air-quality board will review the final plans for Utah County and the five-county Salt Lake pollution-control region next month, and give the public 30 days to comment. They hope to put the plans into action by Jan. 1.
"We're expecting a lot of comments because there are a lot of controversial issues in this," said Dave McNeill, who oversees the plan's development. Also on Wednesday, the board approved the final PM2.5 plan for the Cache Valley, which has developed a new vehicle-emissions testing program.
With it, the area's pollution levels are expected to come into compliance with EPA standards by the end of next year.