The Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment is leading a challenge against a recent decision by state regulators to allow the Tesoro petroleum refinery to expand.
The doctors’ group, joined by the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club and Utah Moms for Clean Air, has asked Utah Department of Environmental Quality Director Amanda Smith to overturn a pair of permits that will allow Utah’s largest refinery to grow slightly and increase key pollutants. Such an administrative appeal is required before the groups could take the issue to court.
What’s behind the expansion?
Tesoro wants to increase its capacity to refine black and yellow waxy crude oil, which requires some changes in processing and equipment.
Large amounts of these oil reserves are found in the Uinta Basin of eastern Utah and Salt Lake-area refineries hope to capitalize on increased market for such products.
Source: Utah Division of Air Quality
"All residents of the Wasatch Front should encourage the Division of Air Quality do their job, which is to protect public health," said Brian Moench, president of the physicians’ organization.
"It is inappropriate, unacceptable and we think indefensible that while the Utah Division of Air Quality is searching for ways to clean up our air to avoid [Environmental Protection Agency] sanctions, they are allowing our biggest industrial polluters to pollute even more."
The permits, approved Sept. 13, will allow the company to increase production from current levels of 58,000 barrels a day to about 62,000.
The upgrades also will mean around 16 percent more volatile organic compounds, a contributor to Utah’s summer and winter pollution problems. Meanwhile, sulphur emissions would go down by nearly 8 percent, or 66 tons a year.
The advocacy groups said air-quality officials failed to keep the public in the loop during the decision-making process. They also said the state failed to show it had done the required technical analysis.
Those failures are especially worrisome since the state is having trouble developing a plan to reduce winter pollution enough to meet EPA standards, said Joro Walker, an attorney with Western Resource Advocates, who is handling the appeal.
"That," she said, "is why the state has to fulfill its role as the guardian of public health."
Tesoro had no comment on the issue Monday, saying it does not discuss "potential legal matters."
State regulators have said Utah law does not allow them to force emissions cuts at the refinery through these new permits.
Christian Stephens, a Utah assistant attorney general handling the case for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said this will be the first time a new administrative appeal process is used for an air-quality decision.
Adopted by state lawmakers earlier this year at the behest of industry, the new system requires the state DEQ director to appoint an administrative law judge to review the arguments made by both sides. The administrative law judge makes a recommendation to the DEQ director, who makes a final decision on the appeal.
The director’s decision can be appealed to the state court of appeals or the Utah Supreme Court, Stephens said.
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