‘It could take years’ to solve ozone pollution on the Wasatch Front, state regulator says

Director of the Utah Division of Air Quality spoke before lawmakers at a committee hearing Wednesday.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Traffic on I-80 in Parley's Canyon on Thursday, July 1, 2021. Vehicle emissions are a significant contributor to ozone pollution in Utah.

Utah’s ongoing violations of federal ozone standards along the northern Wasatch Front and in the Uintah Basin are going to be difficult to solve, a top state regulator told lawmakers on Wednesday.

Davis and Salt Lake counties, as well as parts of Weber and Tooele counties, have exceeded standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency for summertime ozone levels in past years, which harms public health, according to Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality.

“It’s very clear that the ozone levels we experience are impacting public health along the Wasatch Front,” Bird said. On days when ozone level are high, the directed added that “local studies here in this valley that show that our hospitalizations for asthma increase, our heart attack outcomes are poorer.”

But Bird, who made the comments before the interim committee on Public Utilities, Energy and Technology, said addressing the issue is challenging. Over 80% of the pollution that causes ozone — namely volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen — originate beyond Utah’s borders or emanates from natural sources like sagebrush, pine trees and wildfire smoke, Bird said.

Only 20% of emissions are from people and originate within Utah, according to the state’s data, and the largest source of those emissions is from vehicles. Restaurants, gas stations, dry cleaners, airplanes and trains also contribute to the problem.

Industrial sources like the oil refineries north of Salt Lake City — the heart of Utah’s ozone exceedance areas — only account for a fraction of overall ozone pollution.

“Wherever there’s people and cars is where we see the emissions,” Bird said, adding that in some places ozone levels are as high in dense population centers as near industrial activity.

In May, the Utah Division of Environmental Quality sent a lengthy “demonstration” to the EPA, attempting to show that the northern Wasatch Front would meet federal standards “but for” the presence of emissions blowing in from Asia, which, if approved, could grant the state exemptions from certain regulations under the Clean Air Act.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported last month that the Utah Petroleum and Utah Mining associations pressured state regulators, the governor’s office and lawmakers to submit the demonstration and accompanying letters to the EPA. The demonstration relied heavily on a preliminary analysis of ozone patterns that was paid for by the industry groups, and a review of public records by The Tribune showed some state regulators objected to the industry’s involvement.

The state has acknowledged the studies cited in the demonstration lack sufficient rigor.

If the request is granted, it would likely give regulators more time to prove the contribution of Asian emissions.

Environmental groups and clean air advocates, including the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, Western Resource Advocates and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, have argued the demonstration effort is taking up valuable time and resources that could be used to develop a plan to reduce Utah’s ozone levels.

Bird addressed some of those concerns on Wednesday, stating that better models for sources of ozone are currently being developed through a partnership with the University of Utah.

“We’re not trying to point the finger and say we can’t do anything locally,” he said. “I think just the opposite. We’re saying that we have a challenge here. We’ve had past success at making reductions that have been effective locally, and we think we can do it again in this case.”

He said that the industrial polluters are “easy targets,” but tackling vehicle emissions is harder. “It is much more difficult now because it is everybody. It’s all of us.”

“It is a fact that Salt Lake City, Provo and Orem rank eighth on the American Lung Association list of most polluted cities for ozone,” said Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City. “It is here, and it is hurting people.”

Sen. Derrin R. Owens, R-Fountain Green, said we should focus on the progress that has been made over the years to improve air quality. “We have better air now than we’ve had,” he said. “So if that’s a crisis, people still are living and moving here.”

The state has monitored ozone levels since the 1970s and they have declined significantly over the decades despite a growing population. In the 1980s, Bird said, the Wasatch Front used to see days that exceeded 120 parts per billion (ppb) of ozone. Now, the levels in some areas are 77 ppb, a substantial reduction, but one that still violates the most up-to-date EPA standard of 70 ppb.

The oil refineries spent around $450 million over the last decade on a program that reduced their emissions by 40%, Bird added.

The Uintah Basin violations, which have occurred in parts of Duchesne and Uintah counties near Utah’s largest active oil and gas operations, tend to happen during winter inversions.

The EPA is expected to respond in February to the demonstration Utah submitted earlier this year.

In order to be granted the Clean Air Act exemption by the regulators, Utah needs to prove that it would already be meeting federal standards “but for” Asian emissions. If the federal agency doesn’t accept Utah’s demonstration, the state would then have to develop a plan to reduce both NOx and VOCs by 15%, implement a vehicle inspection and maintenance program, and potentially install more controls on industrial sources of pollution. Industry trade groups have argued that such regulations would be overly restrictive and would not reduce Utah’s ozone levels.

“It could take years for us to find a solution,” Bird said. “That’s the purpose of developing a state plan, and that’s what we’ll be working to develop by 2023.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.