Lawmakers want to stop your car from polluting — and hire a few more air scientists

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) The Salt Lake Temple, seen through inversion conditions on Dec. 29, 2016. Lawmakers highlighted bills during the 2018 Utah Legislature addressing air quality, including measures to add regulators at the state Department of Environmental Quality and others targeting polluting emissions from vehicles.

Dealing with Utah air pollution has always been an expensive proposition, but several lawmakers want the state to fund more air-quality research — and they’d like to see some polluting motorists pay up, as well.

Legislators meeting on Utah’s Capitol Hill have thus far proposed just under a dozen air-quality bills, most of which focus on emissions from cars. They’ve also requested money be set aside to hire more staff for the overburdened state Division of Air Quality, where work is piling up as regulators struggle to find ways for Utah to comply with federal air-quality standards.

Lawmakers from both parties are seeking more than $350,000 to create three new job positions — with backing from Bryce Bird, director of the state Division of Air Quality.

State regulators are currently swamped with writing or updating nine pollution control plans, some of which were put in place years ago when Utah previously exceeded federal air quality standards, such as limits on large particulate pollution and dust. Utah now meets these standards, but must regularly update those plans.

State regulators also anticipate the creation of three new nonattainment areas for ozone, an official designation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for communities that do not meet federal limits on airborne pollutants. State officials will need to create pollution-control plans for each of those areas — one spanning Utah County; another covering portions of Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Tooele counties; and a third including Duchesne and Uintah counties.

In addition, southeast Utah will soon need a new plan for dealing with regional haze near its national parks.

And, the state still hasn’t finished its new plan for dealing with small particulate pollution — the main component of the smog most Wasatch Front residents associate with inversions. That plan was due to the EPA in December, but state scientists still haven’t come up with a strategy they believe will bring the northern portion of the state into compliance with EPA rules.

Meanwhile, Bird said, the number of industrial sites that need emissions inspections has also increased, challenging the division’s ability to make routine visits.

“The workload is beyond our current capacity,” Bird said.

Air-quality advocates agree with Bird that hiring additional staff is essential, but environmentalists watching the 2018 legislative session also see promise in several new bills that take aim at emissions from vehicles. Automobiles have long been the primary source of pollutants contributing Utah’s top air quality concerns — small particulate pollution, and ozone.

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, is bringing back an idea from last year’s session with a bill, HB 101, that would require emissions tests for diesel vehicles in all Utah counties located in nonattainment areas.

Rules for those areas already require emissions tests for gasoline-powered vehicles, and most of the counties also require tests for diesel vehicles. Utah County, however, does not.

In another bill, HB171, Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, hopes to raise the penalties for drivers whose diesel vehicles fail to meet emissions standards between tests. The penalty is intended to deter individuals from tampering with their vehicles’ emissions systems in order to “roll coal” or blow columns of black noxious smoke on passers-by, Romero said.

That measure would also enable police officers and health departments to report repeat offenders to the Division of Motor Vehicles, which could revoke the offending vehicle’s registration.

A new idea this year comes from Rep. Michael Kennedy, R-Alpine, with HB331. Kennedy hopes to require the state’s driver’s education classes to include information on how motorists can reduce their emissions, such as by avoiding extended periods of idling.

All three bills have yet to garner a hearing and the session adjourns March 8. Lawmakers have already dispensed with another emissions bill — HB74, which would have exempted the employees of the state’s water systems from having their work vehicles’ emissions tested. Members of the House Transportation Committee voted unanimously to table the bill.