Feds optimistic Utah's history of failing to meet air quality rules is coming to an end, new EPA boss says

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) The Salt Lake City skyline is obscured by dense fog as an inversion settles over the valley, as seen on Tuesday December 26, 2017.

Air quality remains far and away the most worrying environmental issue Utah faces, says a newly appointed administrator with the Environmental Protection Agency. But he is voicing optimism those pollution problems can be fixed.

“When you talk about Utah, the issue you need to focus on immediately is air,” said Doug Benevento, who will oversee the EPA’s Region 8 operations in the Beehive State, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas.

Utah, of course, has a long, sordid history with federal air quality standards, which are set and enforced by the EPA. Communities along the Wasatch Front have failed to meet agency rules for small particulate pollution — generally associated with Utah’s wintertime inversions — for a decade.

Doug Benevento, a former executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, has been named by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt as regional EPA administrator for the agency's region 8, which covers Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana.

Despite this track record, Benevento — appointed to head Region 8 by President Donald Trump’s EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in October — told The Salt Lake Tribune that his past experience gives him confidence Utah’s air can be improved — and in a way that puts state officials more in charge.

As executive director for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Benevento oversaw Denver’s efforts to address the city’s long-standing difficulties with air quality.

Although it took years for Denver — which has problems with inversions similar to those on the Wasatch Front — to meet its air quality goals, Benevento said he believes it is possible to replicate Colorado’s success in Utah.

“There are some differences, but the fundamental issue is the same,” Benevento said. “Denver was out of compliance for longer than Utah. And I think Utah is probably moving at a more rapid pace.”

Benevento attributed Denver’s success to having leadership committed to finding pollution-reducing solutions based on science. Colorado also worked closely with polluting industries in Denver, Benevento said, to find ways to reduce their emissions.

Utah’s weird air soup

Benevento said he sees a similar commitment to science from Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, and Alan Matheson, executive director of Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

But Utah’s inversions present a difficult challenge, Benevento said. Most of the particulate pollution in the state’s air isn’t emitted directly by industry but is instead produced in the atmosphere as a result of a series of poorly understood chemical reactions. Scientists with the Utah Division of Air Quality and the EPA, Benevento said, are actively working to understand those complex processes.

“It’s really a matter of trying to figure out the chemistry,” Benevento said. “What do you need to control to halt the formation of particulates? We’re working on that right now.”

Benevento also encouraged officials in Utah to work more closely with the EPA and take advantage of federal programs that could help.

“They understand the path forward on the air issue,” he said. “But I’ve been where Utah is at, and we’ve worked through those issues, and I hope my experience will help with that.”

Matheson has praised Benevento, saying that through his experience in Colorado, he “appreciates the state interest in meeting environmental standards in ways that reflect local conditions, economies and values.”

Burned on haze

In an interview, Matheson acknowledged a need for greater collaboration between Utah and the EPA. While the two have worked together well on air quality, he said, Utah has been burned by the agency on other issues.

On regional haze, for example, Utah had developed a plan to address the issue in collaboration with the EPA, Matheson said, only to see the EPA ultimately reject that plan and impose its own instead.

The federal plan required pollution controls at Utah’s coal-fired power plants not called for in the state’s approach, triggering legal challenges by Utah and the region’s leading electricity producer Rocky Mountain Power.

Pruitt has since indicated that he will reconsider the EPA’s prior decision on the issue.

Benevento’s predecessor, Shaun McGrath, has vehemently defended his actions on Utah’s regional haze plan, calling the science behind them “solid” and challenging anyone who eliminates the mandated power-plant controls “to explain to the public why they think that’s warranted.”

But Matheson contends that the state’s rejected regional haze plan was based on input from the EPA.

“States need to have a voice that as we meet those standards, we do it in a way that makes sense and is consistent with the values here,” Matheson said. But Benevento, he added, seems open to Utah’s approach.

“That goes to the question of ‘are the states really just an adjunct of the EPA?’” Benevento said. “Our view is that is not the case. Our view is the governor and Alan Matheson know better what works in their state than the EPA.”