It's telling that Big West Oil in North Salt Lake agreed to invest millions in emission controls only after the Environmental Protection Agency came down hard on the company for violating the federal Clean Air Act. Big oil producers and refiners are, obviously, not going to spend money to avoid dumping toxic pollutants into the public airshed without significant prodding.
Gov. Gary Herbert's usual response to demands that the state hold the oil and gas industry to a higher standard of responsibility is to say that the big polluters are already doing everything they can. He favors voluntary compliance with the law and believes the companies will respond if he simply asks them to clean up their operations.
Obvious, Herbert's view is not realistic.
Big West agreed to a settlement with the EPA that requires the company to install $18 million in emissions controls and pay a $175,000 penalty for violations of the Clean Air Act cited by the federal agency.
The deal is among a series of EPA settlements with refineries nationwide in which the agency has cracked down on pollutants that contribute to summer and winter smog and acid rain. Besides degrading the overall environment, the toxic pollutants damage the health of all Utahns, especially the very young, the very old and people with heart and lung problems.
Air pollution has been listed as a possible contributor to autism in children and premature death.
Utah regulators must come up with a plan to reduce harmful air pollution in the Beehive State or face the loss of millions in federal transportation dollars. While auto emissions account for the biggest percentage of the pollutants breathed by Utahns along the Wasatch Front during winter inversions and summer smog, refineries, mines and power plants also contribute significantly.
The importance of the EPA in keeping state regulators in line is also seen in the agency's rejection of part of the state air-pollution control plan because it doesn't do enough to require members of the state's Air Quality Board to reveal conflicts of interest.
That's especially important since four of the nine members of the board come from regulated companies: one representative from the refineries, one from manufacturing, an advocate for the Uinta Basin energy industry and another from the state's largest polluter, Kennecott Utah Copper.
Without federal intervention, Utah's clean-air plan would be heavily influenced by the very people it is supposed to regulate.