Op-ed: EPA won't save Utah from its own bad air
Because the Salt Lake area's air quality fails to meet EPA's standards for fine particulates (PM 2.5) EPA designated three non-attainment areas Salt Lake, Provo, and the Cache Valley. Utah must therefore revise its state implementation plan (SIP) to reduce emissions of PM 2.5 and other gaseous pollutants that are converted to PM 2.5 in the atmosphere. A revised PM 2.5 SIP was sent to EPA for approval in December.
However, even if EPA approves it, our air is likely to remain a threat to human health because an approved SIP does not necessarily lead to clean air. EPA has been approving SIPs for 40 years that fail to achieve compliance with air quality standards. Course particles (PM 10), for example, have been regulated since 1971, but in 2014 there are about 38 non-attainment areas. Moreover, the state's air pollution control program needs to address local conditions that include winter inversions and the nation's highest rate of population growth. However, Utah's law severely limits Utah's Division of Air Quality (DAQ) ability to impose emission limits that are more stringent than federal requirements.
DAQ reports that about half the winter air pollution in the Salt Lake area is from mobile road sources. These emissions are regulated by EPA, which has dramatically reduced emissions from these sources. Utah's SIP revision is depending on EPA's mandated future emission reductions to lower emissions from mobile road sources in 2019 by 15.6 percent for PM 2.5, 49.0 percent for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and 48.1 percent for nitrogen oxides (NOx) from the 2010 base year.
However, improved vehicle emissions will be nullified if people drive more miles. Utah has the power to regulate how, when and where vehicles are used after they are purchased, however, little effort has been made to use this power to reduce driving.
Area sources are the second highest source of emissions with 25.5 percent of the PM 2.5, 35.6 percent of the VOCs, and 12.9 percent of the NOx in 2014. Implementation of new regulations is expected in 2019 to reduce PM 2.5 by 23.5 percent and VOCs by 37.09 percent but NOx will increase slightly from the 2010 base year.
Utah's DAQ identifies solid fuel burning as the most significant area wide source of air pollutants. Regulations applicable to wood stoves and fireplaces in the non-attainment areas went into effect Jan. 1, 2014. However, there are more than 36,000 sources to be regulated. Enforcing these regulations will be difficult, expensive, and unpopular.
Salt Lake's point source category in 2014 is responsible for 23 percent of the PM 2.5, 7.6 percent of the VOCs, and 16 percent of the NOx. Point sources in 2019 are projected to increase emissions by 21.3 percent for PM 2.5, 45 percent for VOCs, and 28.2 percent for NOx from the 2010 base year. EPA's mandated reductions in mobile source emissions are used by Utah to allow point source emissions to increase. Utah's 41 major stationary sources in the three PM 2.5 non-attainment areas are required to reduce emissions far less than mobile sources, and some are allowed to increase emissions.
Utah's air pollution quality can be improved using the Clean Air Act, including SIP revisions. But air quality improvement is unlikely to occur unless the Utah legislature gives DAQ and other state agencies more authority to create a Utah solution. This will require continued attention to improving mass transit, limiting highway construction, discouraging urban sprawl, tightening building codes and encouraging energy conservation and the use of non-fossil fuel. Depending solely on EPA's requirements to improve our air quality will not solve our problem.
Arnold W. Reitze Jr. is a professor of law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah, and professor of environmental law emeritus at The George Washington University School of Law.
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