Brian Moench: Utah does the dirty work for industrial polluters

Taxpayers have a right to know who is paying for state government actions.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Smokey skies in the Salt Lake Valley, Monday, Sept. 9, 2019.

It’s no surprise industrial polluters see the world differently than public health advocates. It is also not a news flash that money talks. In fact, it often shouts so loud in Utah no other voices can be heard. It’s one reason our elected officials are far too cozy with our industrial polluters.

But what is certainly a surprise, an infuriating one at that, is to find out that a state agency whose mission is to protect public health, is publicly and shamelessly being forced to undermine their own mission, and further the interests of some of our biggest polluters, the Utah Petroleum Association (UPA) and the Utah Mining Association (UMA). Welcome to Utah.

The Clean Air Act requires that EPA update their standards every five years to account for advances in medical research. Those advances uniformly tell an increasingly alarming message — air pollution is a more serious public health threat than is reflected in those standards, and medical organizations have been telling the EPA, under both Democratic and Republicans administrations, that EPA’s air pollution standards are too weak.

A recent study published in one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, JAMA, shows just how weak. The current EPA standard for ozone is 70 ppb (parts per billion). Following over 7,000 patients for 18 years, from areas with typically less ozone than in Utah, researchers found that exposure to an increase of just 3 ppb 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.

This study and many others have long since established that, contrary to the very concept of air quality standards, is this sobering reality: There is no safe level of air pollution. What we thought 20, or even 10 years ago might be safe, clearly is not.

Yes, weak standards are better than no standards, but on the other hand, increasingly, and ironically, standards can be exploited to send the wrong message. New pollution sources, such as the inland port, are now justified with the contention that our air quality will still meet those anemic standards.

Given the overwhelming medical research, you would hope that the Utah Division of Air Quality (UDAQ) and our politicians would do everything in their power to reduce our exposure to ozone. If so, you could be nominated for a Nobel Prize in naiveté. Utah’s political kingpins, collaborating with our biggest industrial polluters, are forcing UDAQ to appeal to the EPA to provide even less protection to Utahns from ozone.

An obscure section of the Clean Air Act allows a community to appeal to EPA for “relief” from non-attainment designation if it can show that a significant component of their air pollution originates outside their borders, i.e., in a foreign country. Utah is making the first ever attempt by any state to invoke this section in asking EPA to excuse our high ozone.

UDAQ’s call for relief was buffed and polished with the help of UMA and UPA, and a letter from Gov. Spencer Cox, Senate President Stuart Adams and Speaker of the House Brad Wilson that called those feeble standards “overly rigid federal mandates.”

If EPA falls for this conspiracy theory that our high ozone is China’s fault, UDAQ will be “relieved” of an obligation to hold to account our own polluters, exactly what UMA and UPA intended. We will all be granted freedom from those pesky, “overly rigid federal mandates” and our lungs will be “relieved” of the burden of breathing less smog.

UDAQ’s “sales pitch” to EPA wasn’t cheap. Thousands of hours from experts were required, and hundreds of thousands of dollars were likely spent. Some consultants were hired by UMA and UPA, but a lot of tax payer-funded UDAQ staff time was also involved. Utah taxpayers have a right to know how much of their money was spent on this baneful scheme that will undermine their health and shorten their life expectancy.

Utah is a well-run state, for everyone but its own citizens. After abusing a state agency to placate our biggest polluters, when the smog rolls in from the dirty energy inland port, and wildfire smoke suffocates us year-round, count on the Legislature and our governor to have a solution; asking us all to pray for cleaner air.

Dr. Brian Moench | president, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment

Brian Moench, M.D., is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and author of the nonfiction books, “Death by Corporation” and The Great Brain Robbery/Why Women Have Become Smarter Than Men/Science With an Attitude