Winter inversions along the Wasatch Front tend to spark the most alarm about air quality in the greater Salt Lake City area, but on calm, sunny summer days, a less visible form of pollution is harming residents’ health.
For years, Salt Lake City and surrounding areas have received an “F” grade from the American Lung Association for high levels of smog-causing ozone pollution — a colorless, odorless gas that can irritate or scar lung tissues, especially among children and the elderly, and can trigger a host of respiratory diseases, including asthma.
In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found parts of Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Tooele counties to violate federal standards for ozone concentrations. The EPA gave Utah three years — until Aug. 3, 2021 — to address the issue and come into compliance with EPA standards set in 2015, which may have meant cutting back on industrial emissions that can contribute to heightened ozone levels.
But according to data from air quality monitoring stations, ozone levels were not substantially reduced before that deadline. Instead, fossil fuel and mining industry groups in Utah waged a campaign to pressure state regulators and elected officials to shift blame for the problem away from local polluters and onto China and its neighbors in Asia in what environmentalists say is an attempt to avoid federal regulations.
The Salt Lake Tribune reviewed hundreds of pages of emails sent to public officials between September and May related to that effort. The documents were obtained through public records requests by the Energy and Policy Institute, an environmental watchdog group.
The records show how the Utah Petroleum Association and Utah Mining Association hired consultants to create preliminary models that found as much as 10% of Utah’s ozone concentrations come from emissions originating more than 7,000 miles away across the Pacific Ocean. The groups then successfully pushed state officials to use the industry’s models in communications with the EPA. The effort unfolded despite conflicting models created by the Utah Division of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) own analysts that found Wasatch Front ozone levels had no “probable significant impact from international emissions.”
In addition to paying for and promoting their analysis of air quality data, the emails indicate industry groups ghostwrote a letter to the EPA signed by Utah Republicans, including former Gov. Gary Herbert, current Gov. Spencer Cox and top state lawmakers in December.
In May, the groups were also directly involved in sending another letter from the state to the EPA that requested an exemption from penalties under the Clean Air Act for Utah’s high ozone levels. Both letters argued that increased restrictions on certain ozone-causing pollution sources would hamper Utah’s economy while doing little to improve air quality.
If the EPA accepts the preliminary results of the industry-funded analysis in the coming weeks or months, it could initiate a process that would allow Utah to continue exceeding ozone standards without facing federal restrictions to reduce ozone levels.
‘Sunburning the tissues of the lungs’
Ozone pollution forms when sunlight interacts with certain “precursor” emissions like volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides. It can have a corrosive effect on everything from concrete to plants to automobile tires. In numerous instances during summer months, Salt Lake City’s ozone levels exceed the federal standard, set at 70 parts per billion averaged over an eight-hour period.
“Ozone is a very potent oxidizing agent,” said Dr. Brian Moench, board president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, which has opposed the state’s request to the EPA. “When it’s inhaled, … it’s like sunburning the tissues of the lungs, but it also acts as an inflammatory trigger such that it has a systemic impact.”
Moench pointed to a recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, which followed 7,000 patients for 18 years in areas with typically less ozone than in Utah. The researchers found a “striking correlation,” he said, “that exposure to an increase of just three parts per billion ozone for 10 years was associated with as much loss of lung function and lung tissue as smoking a pack a day of cigarettes for 29 years.”
Other studies have found a correlation between high ozone levels and increased risk for stillbirths. One 2017 study concluded that 8,000 stillbirths per year in the U.S. might be attributable to ozone exposure. While Moench believes the EPA’s standard of 70 parts per billion is too high, a study completed by the agency in 2016 found that achieving that standard in the U.S. would prevent hundreds of premature deaths every year along with thousands of asthma attacks. The EPA also found that reducing ozone levels would save billions of dollars per year in lost productivity.
Rikki Hrenko-Browning, president of the Utah Petroleum Association, agreed Utah has an ozone problem, but she said that due to complex factors that cause ground-level ozone, blaming oil refineries and other industrial facilities on the northern Wasatch Front is misdirected.
“The industry already has a track record of partnering to solve our air quality challenges,” she said, “and that’s something we’re really proud of. We take that obligation seriously.”
Hrenko-Browning pointed to an effort to produce cleaner “tier 3” gasoline in the state and to studies that show most ozone emissions are produced outside of Utah or come from natural sources. “From that perspective,” she said, “the refineries aren’t a significant contributor into all of the pieces that make up the ozone puzzle,” noting that while volatile organic compound emissions have fallen by nearly 40% along the Wasatch Front over the last 15 years, ozone levels have remained level.
Industry’s ‘proactive and direct’ approach
For a Clean Air Act exemption to be granted in Utah, the state must show that it would meet EPA standards “but for” pollution from international sources. Modeling sources of ozone — which can be affected by wildfires, vehicle emissions and numerous other pollutants — is a complex task, and clean air advocates like Moench are aware international sources play a role in ozone levels in Utah.
But in the emails reviewed by The Tribune, multiple reports from Utah DEQ and Division of Air Quality (DAQ) point to state studies that found international sources did not appear to be a significant contributor to ozone levels on days when parts of Utah exceeded federal standards.
“Staff found no clear evidence of significant international transport during high ozone days in the Wasatch Front,” an internal DAQ update in September said. “Instead, it appeared that high ozone days were mainly characterized by low surface winds with elevated high-pressure; this would imply a more causal relationship between high ozone concentrations and local sources.”
Hrenko-Browning and Brian Somers, president of the Utah Mining Association, were involved with ghostwriting drafts of a letter that Herbert, Cox and others signed in December. The letter references a “forthcoming” demonstration from the DAQ that the politicians say they “believe” will show that the Wasatch Front would meet ozone standards “but for” international emissions.
But one month later, in January, DAQ modelers again concluded that the international contribution to ozone levels on exceedance days “is quite low” and that attempts to prove otherwise had been “futile.” State regulators worried that the demonstration was taking “valuable time and resources” away from working on a plan to meet federal ozone standards.
When the petroleum and mining groups continued questioning the state’s findings and pushing for the inclusion of alternative interpretations of the data through numerous meetings with DEQ and DAQ leadership, several staffers with both agencies repeatedly expressed concern about the industry’s involvement. One staffer characterized it as an effort “to blame everyone else for a problem we [in Utah] create.” Another described the Utah Petroleum Association as “very aggressive.”
Hrenko-Browning acknowledged those concerns in a February email to DEQ Executive Director Kimberly Shelley.
“In full transparency,” Hrenko-Browning wrote, “I understand that some of your staff may not be comfortable with our proactive and direct approach and think it inappropriate that someone other than a regulator interpret and take a position on regulatory strategy.”
She continued: “However as a stakeholder that not only stands to be significantly impacted, but who has also already made considerable investments that have legitimately improved air quality, we believe it is appropriate to share our interpretation with transparency.”
Somers said if the EPA does not grant the state’s 179B request, it will have negative economic impacts for all of Utah.
“Industry is stepping up with resources,” he said, “to help the state make its case — and protect our economy — using the EPA’s own data and peer-reviewed science. It would be irresponsible to do otherwise. NGOs which oppose the state advocating for itself should be required to show real data, defensible modeling, and responsible state-centered solutions rather than simply resorting to emotional appeals and scare tactics.”
Are state agencies being ‘hijacked’?
In May, drafts of the letter that was eventually sent to the EPA were circulated among industry groups, the governor’s office, and staffers at the DAQ and DEQ and contained similar language to emails sent by Somers in December.
An early draft of the letter was addressed from Cox to Shelley and shared language used by industry groups. It urged Shelley to “stand resolute in support of our state’s interests,” adding that “federal requirements for emissions controls will likely result in devastating consequences for the state’s economy with negligible impacts on ozone pollution.”
In an email, Thom Carter, an energy advisor to Cox at the Utah Governor’s Office of Energy Development, worried the section pressuring Shelley to support the state’s interests “could read very poorly on the Governor; like he publicly needs to tell the DEQ to do their jobs.”
The final draft of the letter was softened in tone and was addressed to the EPA, not to Shelley. It was attached to a 198-page “demonstration” under section 179B of the Clean Air Act that argued the northern Wasatch Front would meet EPA standards “but for” international emissions. The document relied heavily on the industry-funded analysis.
In late May, Joro Walker, general counsel for the Western Resource Advocates, submitted a lengthy public comment signed by the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, HEAL Utah, and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. Walker pointed to what she saw as problems with the third-party analysis and its apparent contradictions with the state’s findings. (Hrenko-Browning said the state’s studies were flawed and the industry-backed analysis painted a more complete picture.)
DEQ didn’t critique the industry-funded analysis, Walker said, “as something that was coming from the outside or from a third party, which was unacceptable.” Additionally, she said, the state agency did not respond to the environmental groups’ questions and comments, and it only allowed for a 20-day public comment period to review and respond to a “highly technical” document.
Walker contrasted that lack of transparency with the access granted to industry groups, who met repeatedly with state officials on the ozone issue throughout the winter and spring, according to the public records.
“The mining association and the petroleum association had access to the government in a way that members of the public were completely denied,” Walker said. “That’s not good governance. That’s not accountability. And that’s not the way that a state agency should be dealing with the public … when it’s bending over backwards to accommodate industry.”
Jennifer Napier-Pearce, a spokesperson for Cox, disagreed that industry had disproportionate access. “The state consistently invites input from all stakeholders when it comes to air quality,” she said. “In fact, the Department of Environmental Quality meets bimonthly with both environmental advocates and industry to ensure a balanced approach to regulation and policy.”
“Gov. Cox has always been a strong proponent of clean air,” Napier-Pearce said, “has prioritized clean air in the One Utah Roadmap and DEQ has and will continue to promote adoption of industrial, transportation and building designs that reduce emissions in the face of growth through both regulations and incentives.”
Shelley told The Tribune that the demonstration “contained all available information, including model and technical analysis from the Division of Air Quality demonstrating that local contribution to the formation of Wasatch Front ozone is relatively small (less than 20%) compared to all other sources.” She said the packet contained comments from elected officials, industry and environmental advocates.
“It is the EPA’s decision whether or not to approve this submission,” Shelley said. Regardless of the outcome, she added, DEQ will continue to strive toward “balanced regulation” by working with policy makers, industry and advocates to improve air quality.
But Moench sees the 179B demonstration effort as harmful. If the request is granted, he said, state regulators will continue to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars working to present more evidence to the federal government to prove ozone levels are being significantly impacted from overseas emissions, even if that turns out not to be the case.
“The end result,” he said, “would be their staff time would basically be spent justifying allowing our air to get worse rather than figuring out a strategy to make it better.
“It’s outrageous,” Moench continued, “that a state agency, whose mission is to protect public health, is being hijacked by our biggest industrial polluters to service their agenda.”
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.