The mission of the EPA is to protect the environment. But those who criticize government interference in business forget that protecting the environment really means protecting the humans who have to live, breathe and find sustenance within it.
The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to work with Utah state government to help clean up the too-often-toxic air along the Wasatch Front, in Cache Valley and the Uintah Basin. But the state has failed to close a loophole that allows industrial polluters to claim "unavoidable breakdown" to get away with exceeding pollution limits set by the state. So the feds are preparing to take over the regulation of such industries as power plants, cement plants, oil refineries and mining operations.
If the EPA decides to sanction the state, it could cut off about $200 million a year in federal highway funds that Utah can ill afford to lose.
But the EPA must demand that Utah get tougher on polluters if Utahns are to have any chance for cleaner air.
In the most polluted areas in the Beehive State the air is so bad that people forced to breathe it are dying prematurely and the health of children, the elderly and those with medical problems such as heart disease is severely compromised.
At issue is a rule governing about 1,200 businesses that operate under state-issued air pollution permits. The state rule allows polluting industries to avoid sanctions for spewing more emissions than their permit allows if they claim to be exceeding the limit because of a breakdown in equipment or operation. In other words, the state takes the side of polluting industries against the well-being of Utahns.
The EPA, on the other hand, rightly assumes a breakdown that results in increased emissions probably could have been avoided if the operator were diligent and competent. And the agency penalizes the business for exceeding the limit.
Some polluters are obviously taking advantage of the state's lenience. The state agency reports an average of six episodes annually when industries blamed breakdowns for increasing their pollution output. That number doesn't count incidents lasting less than two hours.
In its notice of intent to take over regulatory oversight from the state, the EPA said Utah regulators ignore that the "unavoidable breakdown" rule violates federal law and its goal to protect Utahns and the environment. That's unacceptable. In its search for a new air-quality director, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality should look for someone who will represent the public's interests, not bow to industrial polluters.