On the home page of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality is this mandate: "Safeguarding Human Health and Quality of Life by Protecting and Enhancing the Environment."
At a congressional hearing last week, the director of the DEQ, Amanda Smith, and Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, betrayed that mandate, siding with polluters on the question of whether the Environmental Protection Agency should establish stricter ozone standards. Stating that even background levels of ozone in remote, sparsely populated parts of Utah would violate proposed tighter ozone regulations, Smith and Stewart acted as if nothing could be done about ozone in the West, like it was all Mother Nature's fault.
Smith told Congress: "Setting an ozone standard that can't be met won't improve public health." Cherry-picking the science, Stewart pronounced high ozone a uniquely Western problem due to "wildfires and high elevations," adding the tired excuse that Salt Lake's inversions are caused by our geography and mountains and cannot be laid on Kennecott and its steam shovels.
The EPA's scientific experts and virtually every national health organization have called for stricter standards, which Stewart described as economic "punishment" and "divorced from reality."
Ozone can travel far. High levels have been measured over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and forest fires in Alaska increase ozone in Europe. Utah is undoubtedly "importing" ozone and its precursors from outside the state.
But the idea that there is nothing Utah can do within its boundaries is a sham. Smith and Stewart ignored the serious ozone problems in the Uinta Basin and throughout the "energy corridor" of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and eastern Utah, created not by Mother Nature, but by turning it all into a giant profit center for the fossil-fuel industry.
The area has already seen much higher levels of ozone than Los Angeles. The ozone stew generated in the Uinta Basin doesn't stay in the basin, but eventually spreads through the West and beyond.
NOx, a precursor of ozone, will drift over the Wasatch Front after being emitted from a proposed, and unneeded, gas-fired power plant that Smith's DAQ just approved for Richfield. More ozone and particulate matter will come from oil shale, tar sands and refinery expansions also approved by the state agency. More smog will be the gift that keeps on giving from the Utah Department of Transportation's proposed West Davis freeway.
Claims that we can't meet a new ozone standard are simply an excuse for our state leaders to continue their blind love affair with more cars and dirty energy. Stewart's alternate reality also includes the thoroughly debunked industry talking point that controlling pollution hurts the economy. Hardly. Updates to the standards of the Clean Air Act have proven to yield enormous economic benefits, between 10 and 30 times the cost of implementing those updates.
The medical research is firmly established. Air pollution, including ozone, is harmful even at levels far below the proposed new standards. That means it is just as important to make our air cleaner in the spring, summer and fall, and in our rural communities, as it is to alleviate our infamous winter inversions. Smith snubbed this key scientific reality in her congressional testimony.
In the real world, where climate scientists live, ground-level ozone is also a potent greenhouse gas, 3,000 times more potent than CO2, causing about one third of the greenhouse effect. So the ozone tug of war is part of the critical battle to salvage a livable climate.
Intense heat, drought and much earlier wildfires have become the new norm in the West. Utah's snowpack, forests and agriculture are already being ravaged by drought and soaring temperatures (which increases ozone formation), with much worse to come.
Meanwhile, Smith, Stewart and the rest of the state's political brain trust fiddle while a cabal of dirty energy corporations pour gasoline on the smoldering fire that has become our future. That future increasingly depends on getting a quick divorce from their version of reality.
Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of the health and radiation committee of Physicians for Social Responsibility.