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Smith: DEQ is working on Utah's pollution problems
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In his June 23 Opinion piece ("Utah makes bad bargain with big polluters"), Dr. Brian Moench alleged that the Utah Department of Environmental Quality is betraying public trust, allowing more pollution and disregarding public health. Moench's blatant misrepresentation of fact is so disingenuous it warrants a timely response.

My congressional testimony made clear that ozone is indeed a serious public health threat that must be addressed through aggressive measures. However, the prescriptive nature of the federal Clean Air Act makes solving the problem of ozone nearly impossible. If the public health is to be protected, new strategies are essential.

At issue is the impact of lowering the standard on rural Utah and other Western states. Moench's tired and worn vilification of Kennecott has nothing to do with my testimony. The Environmental Protection Agency needs to establish adequate guidance and strategies to meet a new standard before it lowers it — so that we can actually address the problem. Instead, current guidance focuses on solving summertime ozone in highly populated urban centers.

The origins of ozone are complex, but solutions must be tailored to address the actual problem. Ozone is formed through the chemistry of emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOC) and nitrous oxide. However, recent studies show it is also transported from other states and other countries. It is also naturally formed by plants and at times comes from intrusion from the outer atmosphere.

In San Juan County, population 15,000, ozone regularly registers above 70 ppb, which would be in violation of a proposed new standard. An emissions inspection program and implementing tighter restrictions on the one permitted facility in San Juan County will not solve the problem or do much to protect public health. In fact, the negative impacts of poverty perpetuated by additional regulations would adversely affect public health.

If the new standard is not met, the current regulatory structure requires existing sources to reduce emissions before new emission sources may be built, a death-knell for rural economic development and needed jobs. Increasingly more stringent strategies will then be required, including a mandatory 15 percent reduction in VOC, vehicle emission programs, fuel reformulations, reasonably achievable control technology for stationary sources and traffic control measures.

Such an approach might make sense in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, with millions of vehicles and thousands of ozone sources, but it makes no sense in Mexican Hat (population 31) or Bluebell (population 293), or the host of other small rural communities that would find themselves in "non-attainment," subject to a one-size-fits-all solution.

Utah has not ignored the problem, as Moench claims. DEQ has aggressively worked to understand the science behind the problem and to reduce air pollutants that cause high ozone. We have worked to make stakeholders part of the solution.

Moench claims "our future" is dependent upon a "quick divorce" from fossil fuels, and the fight against ozone pollution is "part of a critical battle to salvage a livable climate." I understand and respect Moench's passion on this issue.

However, his view is myopic if his goal is a lower standard, rather than an actual solution to address ozone pollution. My testimony and that of the panel was clear: Ozone is a critical problem and state agencies need workable tools to address the actual problem, not mollify political critics. Those tools would include additional resources for research and modeling, as well as regulatory guidance that allows meaningful methods to address ozone impacts unique to the West.

The state of Utah strives to ensure our efforts focus on effective and appropriate strategies to reduce rural ozone without onerous, costly measures that make no sense and stifle jobs in small communities. 

Amanda Smith is executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

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