When the people of Utah cry out, as they do more and more often, for their government to do something about the frequently horrid quality of the air we breathe, it is unlikely that what they had in mind was the appointment of another committee.
Yet that is exactly what Gov. Gary Herbert did last week. He named 38 people — undeniably a blue ribbon panel of government, industry, academic and activist minds — to examine the problem and come up with some workable solutions.
The governor’s Clean Air Action Team is supposed to meet at least 10 times in the coming months and, by the end of 2014, present him and the rest of us with a plan of action.
Given the seriousness of the problem, and the complexity of solving it, that is an idea that is hard to criticize. Or would be hard to criticize, if it were not for the fact that Utah already has a permanent committee, peopled by a cross-section of experts and industry representatives, whose job it is to draft and enforce air quality regulations in the state.
It’s called the Utah Air Quality Board. And its authority, set in state statute, is to make the regulations and issue the permits necessary to enforce state and federal air quality standards in Utah. It has the able technical and legal assistance of the staff of the Division of Air Quality, within the Department of Environmental Quality. And it is already up and running.
Of course, in government, as in other large organizations, it can become necessary to set up a new office, agency or working group in order to get around an existing entity that has become calcified or otherwise ineffective. But Herbert has made no such accusation against the Air Quality Board and, to the degree that others have found fault with it, it is mostly on the basis of how it seems to be overly sensitive to the wants of industry rather than the needs of human beings.
That, and the wholly valid concern that, no matter how activist or aggressive the Air Quality Board might be, state law limits its power to doing no more than bringing Utah air quality into conformance with federal rules. There can be, by statute, no stronger, better or custom-made Utah solution to air pollution woes.
All this is going on against a rapidly developing background, one where, locally, people are justifiably more and more worried about the Stericycle medical waste incinerator and the pollution that rises from refineries and mines. And, globally, the World Health Organization has concluded that air pollution in general qualifies as a carcinogen.
If Herbert really wants to do something to clean up Utah’s air — air that makes us sick, costs us money and frightens away new business — he can push the Legislature to beef up the power held by the Division of Air Quality and its board, tell it to make our air even cleaner than the federal Environmental Protection Agency demands, and let them loose to do their work.
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