Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Tuesday announced he has created a 38-member panel that will spend the next year weighing how to tackle dirty air, widely viewed as the state’s toughest environmental challenge.
The Clean Air Action Team will meet at least 10 times and at the end of 2014 will recommend "practical and effective strategies to improve Utah’s air quality," Herbert said. He appointed advocates, lawmakers, industry representatives, policy experts, academics and health care providers to serve on the panel.
"This isn’t a matter of feel-good stuff, but getting results," Herbert said at a press event at the Capitol. "There are no possible solutions that won’t be reviewed. There are no sacred cows. If we work together we can clean up the air in Utah. I know this is not going to be easy, but then most good things in life don’t come easily."
Even in the face of some gains in smog reduction, the Salt Lake Valley and surrounding counties fell out of compliance with federal standards for fine particulate suspended in the air. Winter inversions often trap this pollution near the ground, obscuring the view, forcing people indoors and perhaps discouraging businesses from relocating here.
Also on Tuesday, regulators fielded public comments on a draft "state implementation plan," or SIP, designed to improve the Salt Lake City region’s air so that it complies with federal standards.
"We fell out of attainment in 2009 and the Clean Air Act said we should be back in attainment by 2014," said Christopher Thomas, executive director of HEAL Utah. "This plan says we have no hope of getting to where we need to before 2019, and even then just barely and only under the most optimistic circumstances."
Ingrid Griffee, of Utah Moms for Clean Air, and others said they were frustrated with the plan’s time frame.
"My kids will be nearly grown by . They don’t come with a pause button. They need clean air now," Griffee said. "By the time we reap the benefit of those new standards, my kids’ childhood will be over."
Others were puzzled by the plan’s lack of teeth.
"We don’t want to upset industry, but we’ll upset the people. I just don’t get it. Where’s the aggressiveness in action?" said Thomas Plustwik, a native of Australia who has lived in Salt Lake City for the past 12 years. "Why don’t we have a statewide prohibition on idling?"
At his Capitol announcement, Herbert acknowledged particulate pollution is a growing concern, but rejected the notion it is a growing problem. Coal smoke hung over the valley like a dirty curtain back in the 1890s, leading to the state’s first air-quality rules. And emissions have been sharply reduced over just the past decade, Herbert said. Since 2002, for example, emissions in Salt Lake County have fallen from 409,000 tons to 218,000 tons.
These gains have come thanks to federal regulations, according to pediatrician Michelle Hofmann, who will serve on the governor’s clean air panel. She said a lasting solution will come from striking a "middle ground" that balances enforceable rules and voluntary measures.
Another panel member, Terry Marasco,of Utah Moms for Clean Air, believes it is time to change Utah laws to allow state standards to get tougher than federal standards because of Utah’s unique air-quality problems, and to allow some gasoline tax revenue to be diverted from roads to public transit and bicycling.
Many advocates want state leaders to think beyond achieving federal standards since air quality can still be unhealthy even if it falls within these limits.
Currently, the Wasatch Front meets the federal 24-hour thresholds for fine particulates 95 percent the time.
"That means 5 percent of the time we do not and that’s not acceptable," the governor said. "We know it has a detrimental effect on our health, the economy and our quality of life. There is nothing more important than the air we breathe. I want to ensure my grandchildren will have an opportunity to have healthy air and a healthy environment."
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