Utah could lose federal highway funding if it fails to improve summer air quality. Lawmakers want to fight the feds over it.

During an air quality briefing Utah lawmakers blasted federal standards that they claim are “uncontrollable by us.”

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Hiker jogs down path from Ensign Peak above Salt Lake City Tuesday July 16. What can be an amazing view of the valley is diminished with an ozone haze. With higher Summer temperatures ozone pollution is climbing into the moderate level.

Each winter, Utah’s air becomes so polluted residents complain they can slurp it like soup.

In the summertime, the state’s air still has problems, although it isn’t as visible.

Summer ozone pollution damages lung tissue and exacerbates asthma, according to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. It can also worsen diseases like emphysema and chronic bronchitis and can be particularly harmful to the developing lungs of children.

The Environmental Protection Agency regulates ozone levels across the country, and Utah is well above the level “considered protective of public health,” Bryce Bird, director of Utah’s Division of Air Quality, told lawmakers Wednesday.

If Utah fails to reach attainment, penalties could kick in. A freeze could be put on federal highway funds and the EPA could impose a more stringent mitigation plan.

More than 80% of the ozone comes from natural or foreign sources, while a much smaller slice comes from human and industry activity in Utah.

But there are things Utah can do to reduce ozone levels like using Tier 3 fuels, implementing workplace EV charging stations or turning in gas-powered lawn equipment for electric versions.

“We also see that health benefit that comes with improving air quality as well and certainly is a benefit,” Bird said.

Bird noted that it once seemed impossible to get air quality levels below federal standards during winter inversions. “Now it’s been five years in a row we have not exceeded that standard even during winter inversions.”

Legislators spent much of the briefing berating the federal standards and advocated for fighting back against them.

“We’ve got a state agency who is trying to be compliant with what the federal government will say,” said Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, “but it will do us no good in the end.”

Bird noted that even the remote town of Escalante had “exceeded the current standard at that monitor. That really does show that the background levels that we’re experiencing here in the West are …”

“... Uncontrollable by us,” Sandall cut in, “but somehow we’re obligated to try to do something about that uncontrollable piece.”

“Yes, but we have to do it,” Bird replied, nervously laughing.

“No, no we don’t. No we don’t. No we don’t,” Sandall said. “I’m going to correct you. We do not have to comply to an uncompliable standard. And that’s the message that we’ve got to send to the federal government is: we can’t do that. There’s no way.”

Last session Sandall sponsored a bill, SB57, allowing the Legislature to ignore federal laws and regulations if Utah lawmakers think they’re unconstitutional. The bill passed and Gov. Spencer Cox signed it.

“Whether we do that through legislation,” Sandall continued, “whether we do that through a lawsuit, whatever we do, we have to be the ones to say no, and we’re going to live here, we’re going to manage that.”

It’s an argument Utah leaders have been making for years. Utah Mining Association leaders ghostwrote letters on behalf of former Gov. Gary Herbert and current Gov. Spencer Cox in 2021 arguing that Utah would have met EPA ozone standards had there not been overseas emissions.

Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, asked Bird, “Is it a priority for your office to meet compliance with federal standards or to push back against federal standards? What is the higher calling for your part of the world?”

“So I’d say those are equal and we do both,” Bird replied, “I wouldn’t say one’s higher or lower. I’d say what is the highest one is protecting the public health of the people in Utah with the tools that we have.”

He further clarified that the state attorney general pays for litigation costs while the air quality department’s funds go toward running air quality programs.

Snider said where the money goes is ultimately where the heart of the agency is.

“Perhaps there needs to be a fundamental shift in the key objectives of DEQ more towards pushing back on the overzealous nature of the federal government,” Snider said, “rather than simply complying with the impossible.”