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(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) The pollution-plagued Salt Lake Valley is obscured by another red air day as the inversion continues on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014.
Utah guv, Legislature may be headed for clash over dirty air
Pollution politics » Lawmakers may be worried about approving heavy-handed rules.
First Published Feb 11 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Mar 03 2014 07:45 am

For those days when the air in the Salt Lake Valley is murky enough that it stings the eyes and burns the lungs and kids are kept inside from recess, Nancy Schmaus set up an indoor-recess program at her children’s school to let them work out the jitters and get some exercise.

It’s a step she wishes she didn’t have to take, but she recognizes it’s too unhealthy for children, especially those with asthma or other problems, to play outside.

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"It’s a big concern, health-wise," said Schmaus, who is also active in the group Utah Moms for Clean Air. "We’re an active family, and I think it makes it far less appealing to spend time outside when the air is disgusting and it’s very visible. … I really just think you have to take some dramatic steps and you have to be brave and look out for the well-being of our entire community."

She’s not alone.

On a recent Saturday, 4,000 people rallied at the Capitol calling for action to clean Utah’s air. A recent poll by the University of Utah’s business school found, next to education, Utahns consider it the second-most-pressing issue before the Legislature.

A survey by The Salt Lake Tribune found that, by a 3-to-1 margin, Utahns favor stricter air-quality standards for industry.

It was to that end that Gov. Gary Herbert made steps to clean Utah’s air a focal point of his annual State of the State speech. He called for a ban on wood-burning stoves during the winter-inversion months — December through February — in areas of the state with the worst pollution and adoption of new standards for cleaner-burning gasoline and vehicles "as soon as possible."

And he says he may plow ahead with or without the backing of the Legislature.

"I don’t think there’s any question there will be a big benefit," said Robert Paine, a physician who leads the Program for Air Quality, Health and Society at the University of Utah. "I think there is tremendous enthusiasm for this two-pronged approach."

But the enthusiasm seems to have not registered with House and Senate Republican leaders, who are resisting Herbert’s approach as too top-down and restrictive.

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Heavy handed » "I could see the Legislature tackling the wood-burning stove issue after a thorough study of what’s reasonable and maybe something short of just saying all the folks who have fireplaces in their homes, ‘you’re not going to be able to use them’ " during inversion season, Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund said. "That may be a little bit heavy-handed."

Lawmakers also are questioning whether Herbert’s call for accelerating the fuel standards is practical, given the current technology.

Technically, the governor doesn’t need the Legislature’s backing, and Herbert said he has already directed the Division of Air Quality to start down the road of implementing rules to stop the wood-burning by next winter.

"The process has started. We hope to get [legislators] on board. Again, this is not a hard concern to understand," he said. "If, for some reason, they don’t, the Division of Air Quality, I expect them to move ahead."

Herbert also has instructed the division to work with refineries on ways to accelerate the implementation of the cleaner-burning, low-sulfur Tier 3 gasoline.

Research cited by state and federal air officials points to quick, measurable improvements in Utah’s murky winter air if the governor’s policies are adopted.

U. researchers found that, on the days when the air is at its worst, wood-burning stoves may be responsible for between 5 and 15 percent of the pollution. Burning wood in a traditional fireplace for one hour emits as much PM 2.5 — the tiny particles that have been found to be harmful — as driving 1,150 miles.

But for some who own wood-burning stoves, the ban seems to be over-reaching.

"I’ve lived here since I was a little kid and it’s been like this ever since I was little, and it’s even been worse," Mike Van Valkenburg said of the air in Salt Lake County. "I remember one winter when we went for like 90 days without even being able to see the sun. … It just seems like the wood-burning part isn’t going to change it that much. It seems like to take away our right to burn wood just doesn’t seem right to me."

House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Ogden, agrees that the ban Herbert is proposing, even on good air days, is probably too much.

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