How Cox let dirty industry take over Utah’s air quality planning, Tribune Editorial Board writes

State leaders’ allegiance to extractive economy industries endangers lives and our future sustainable economy.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune View of the white hot haze in the valley looking west from the Utah Capitol Wednesday July 1, 2017.

If you are going to crib your homework from someone else’s paper, the least you can do is borrow from someone who actually knows the material, not from a student who just makes junk up. Otherwise you are both going to look foolish.

And, in the case of the state of Utah letting drilling and mining interests write large portions of its report on the best way to control ozone pollution in northern Utah, the result won’t just be a failing grade. It is far too likely to be a future where the health and lives of innocent people are put to unnecessary risk to save the fossil fuel industry a few million bucks.

A trove of government emails uncovered by an environmental watchdog group called the Energy and Policy Institute and reported last week in The Salt Lake Tribune makes clear that Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, legislative leaders and people who are supposed to be the state’s top environmental regulators allowed their communications with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to be partially ghost-written by people from the Utah Petroleum Association and Utah Mining Association.

In so doing, Cox and his allies put the interests of industries that are on their way out ahead of the health and safety of future generations. It is the kind of thing that happens when a total vacuum of leadership at the state level leaves a space eagerly to be filled by special interest lobbyists.

The issue is atmospheric ozone levels in parts of Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Tooele counties, levels that are in excess of federal standards for safe levels of chemicals that can cause serious harm to people’s lungs, especially the young and the old. Experts describe the impact of such levels as “sunburning the tissues of the lungs,” causing such woes as increased cases of asthma and higher levels of stillbirths.

The EPA told Utah something had to happen to reduce those levels by, well, about a month ago, or there would have to be concrete plans to reduce the emissions of the various chemicals that, baking in the summer sun, lead to heightened levels of ozone.

State leaders and those speaking for drillers, miners and other industrial interests were loath to do that. So the industry cooked up a report claiming it was unfair to make the Utah economy bear the brunt of regulatory limits when, they claimed, approved levels of chemicals were unreachable due to pollution that blew in from as far away as China.

This was in contrast to the air pollution experts on the state’s payroll — the ones who are supposed to be looking out for public health rather than (only) private profit — who found that imported pollution made a negligible difference in the area’s ozone levels. More predictive of such bad air quality, the Utah Division of Environmental Quality said, was days with no wind and high atmospheric pressure. In other words, when locally created air toxins were trapped rather than days when Asian pollution was blown in.

But that, apparently, was not what Cox and his allies wanted to hear. Or to say to the EPA. So their plea to be exempt from clean-up requirements was one based on models developed by polluting industries as part of a plan to make sure they could pollute more.

In addition to such blatant efforts to cook the books, what’s disgraceful about this plot is the absence of any realization that, even if a significant amount of pollutants do blow in from the other side of the world, that’s no excuse to give up.

If anything, it is, or should be, reason for Utah to redouble its efforts to control the parts of the equation that it can control to make the air here livable and the people who live here something other than collateral damage in the battle to preserve the extractive economy far beyond its useful life.

The public comment period on this process closed in late May. But Utahns who care about both the quality of their air and the responsibility of their government can let Cox, their legislators, DEQ and EPA know what they think about all this.

The state’s argument that cracking down on ozone-creating pollution would damage the state’s economy is, like just so much of what comes out of the governor’s office, a ridiculous effort to stick to a fossil-fuel based economy rather than lead the shift to renewable, lung-saving, sources of energy.

That shift is something Utah can not only achieve, but lead. If only we’ll do our own homework.