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A bill that reshapes Utah’s environmental advisory boards on such things as clean air and water and radioactive waste cleared its first Senate vote on Friday, 19-3.
SB21 is expected to be up for its final Senate vote early next week.
Sponsoring Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, has said she wants to streamline the panels, trimming the membership of all five boards. And the bill also would take many roles currently played by the boards and shift them to the Department of Environmental Quality director and to staff of DEQ agencies.
"I’m in awe of what they do," Dayton said of board members, noting that they help the state deal with many technical issues.
Dayton has worked with the Utah Manufacturers Association and the Utah Mining Association for nearly two years on the bill. Several environmental groups were invited to attend a two-day workshop on the revamp this fall, but only one was able to attend.
A fiscal note on the 186-page bill said it will save around $11,800 a year in expenses related to meetings of the boards, which focus on air quality, radiation control, drinking water, water quality and solid and hazardous waste.
A substitute version was released Wednesday, prompting environmentalists to say the bill remained flawed.
An amendment by Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, Friday eased one of their concerns. It would designate a spot for an environmental group representative on each board. The remainder of the membership would be made up of industry professionals and representatives of government agencies.
The bill also would phase out the current boards beginning with the Radiation Control Board in June and concluding with the Drinking Water Board in April 2013.
Steve Erickson, representing the 2,000-member Utah Audubon Council, said he hopes the bill will be amended to lessen the concentration of power in the executive director, who already wields hefty executive and judicial powers.
"We would prefer to see these boards with a stronger citizen voice, a voice for the public, as they have been in the past," he said.
The Utah League of Women Voters has issued an alert urging its members to call their senators and ask them to vote against SB21.
"It gives too much power to the directors of the various divisions of the Department of Environmental Quality," said the alert. "As people who follow public policy closely, we know the correct balance of power between boards and directors is critical and a too powerful director thwarts the purpose of having a board."
DEQ Director Amanda Smith had previously said her agency had some concerns with the first draft of the bill because there were technical glitches in the shift of authorities and the errors might possibly threaten state "primacy," or oversight, over some federal programs. But the revision appears to address many of those concerns, she said.
"We are happy with the substance of the bill," she said.
Jim Holtkamp, an attorney who assisted industry in working on the bill with Dayton, said most problems have been corrected and any that turn up can be dealt with later.
Meanwhile, Dayton has said she expects the bill, which did not have a Senate committee hearing, to be heard by a House committee. Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, will manage the bill in the House.
"We’re going to have a lot of public input," she said.
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