Tribune editorial: On air quality, Utah sputters as Utahns cough

FILE - This Jan. 23, 2013, file photo, shows a poor air quality warning is posted over a highway, in Salt Lake City. Inversions hover over Salt Lake City as cold, stagnant air settles in the bowl-shaped mountain basins, trapping tailpipe and other emissions that have no way of escaping to create a brown, murky haze the engulfs the metro area. Doctors warn that breathing the polluted air can cause lung problems and other health concerns, especially for pregnant women and people with respiratory issues. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

So here we are again.

Particulates reached unhealthful levels in the Salt Lake Valley this week as another brown layer of inversion took hold.

Bad air has become the biggest blot on Utah’s otherwise pristine reputation. In this land of national parks and Olympics, most people live in a bowl of poisonous muck every winter. It clouds our present and darkens our future — both physiologically and financially.

Meanwhile, the Utah strategy continues to be incremental: find small victories and wait for technology — specifically cleaner cars — to save the day.

It has been the strategy for years, and to some extent it has worked. Particulate pollution has dropped 25 percent since the turn of the century.

But Los Angeles has cut its particulates almost in half in the same period, thanks to more aggressive efforts by California leaders. The unacknowledged truth is that progress in Utah largely has been driven by tightening federal emission and fuel standards. Thank those distant D.C. bureaucrats our politicians love to hate.

Unfortunately, the gains have not kept up with the science that shows that even the smaller amounts of pollution are still seriously damaging. Just last month it was more bad news, a University of Utah study that linked higher nitrogen oxide levels to an increased rate of miscarriages.

For his part, Gov. Gary Herbert set aside $100 million in his latest budget on the hope Utah legislators will channel it to addressing air pollution.

The governor admits he doesn’t know where exactly to spend it. It’s one-time money, so it can’t be used to launch ongoing programs. He has offered examples, including buying more furnaces for people who only have wood stoves. Fleet updates are another target. How many new, cleaner school buses can we add?

How about more incentives for electric and hybrid vehicles? Actually, the Legislature went the other way on that one. Cleaner cars are undermining the current method of using a gasoline tax to pay for roads, so legislators last year passed a bill to start charging electric and hybrid owners extra registration fees to compensate for their not paying as much gasoline tax.

Now even the D.C. bureaucrats may not have the urgency. The Trump Administration has backed away from tightening emissions standards, and a group of clean air advocates this week filed notice of intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for not forcing Utah and Arizona to meet federal deadlines for submitting a clean-air plan.

Utah was supposed to submit its plan to reduce particulates last summer, but only this week did the state’s Air Quality Board sign off on it. State officials expect to have it to EPA in the coming weeks.

As expected, the plan is an assortment of small moves, some of which have been done already. Cleaner water heaters are now required on new construction, for instance. Perhaps the meatiest part of the plan is the requirement that industries and Hill Air Force Base spend $98 million on updating equipment. With industry producing about 15 percent of the total pollution, the updates will be noticeable, but not game changers.

State officials say technical issues in their modeling made them miss the deadline. That’s understandable. It takes time when you’re trying to find ways to inch over the line to federal compliance.

But don’t blame Utah’s environmental officials for that. Ultimately, this is about political will, not bureaucratic inertia. The lack of urgency — the satisfaction with the progress that has been made — flows from the top. How many miscarriages will it take?

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