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EPA announces 'significant' milestone in Utah's battle over air quality

(Scott G Winterton, KSL)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Residents in large portions of the Wasatch Front can now breathe easier, a bit anyhow, with the news that these areas are set to be in compliance with federal standards for levels of PM2.5, or fine-particulate pollution.

Greg Sopkin, the administrator over the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region 8, which includes Utah, announced Tuesday the Provo and Salt Lake areas are being classified as in attainment after more than a decade of not meeting the standards. The proposal to reclassify was published in the Federal Register and is out for comment through Dec. 7.

The Provo area includes Utah County, while the Salt Lake City area ropes in portions of Weber, Davis, Box Elder and Tooele counties.

"It is a great day for air quality along the Wasatch Front," Sopkin said, noting that in 2009 — when these areas first were classified as nonattainment — the measurement for fine-particulate pollution in Salt Lake City was 48 micrograms per cubic meter, well above the federal threshold of 35.

From 2017 through 2019, that measurement was 30 — a reduction of 37%, Sopkin noted.

"Congratulations to Utah for this great achievement," he said.

Sopkin said over the last 10 years the EPA has funneled $12 million in grants to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality to help with pollution cutting efforts, including wood-burning stove replacements and to provide rebates to change out polluting vehicles that failed emission tests.

Sopkin said another milestone achieved in the state is Salt Lake and Utah counties, as well as Ogden, meeting the standard for a coarser form of pollution called PM10.

Scott Baird, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said it has been a long fight but growing public consciousness over the importance of clean air has helped.

The Salt Lake Valley is pictured on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020.
The Salt Lake Valley is pictured on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. (Photo: Scott G. Winterton, KSL)

"We know that air quality is a priority for the residents of Utah. As a state we have been working for decades to address air quality," Baird said. "Utah has taken decisive action resulting in the significant progress that we announce today."

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert praised the effort of the state agency, lawmakers, the Legislature's Clean Air Caucus, and the willingness of multiple private and public sector organizations to step up to put in pollution controls.

He acknowledged the push to have refineries move to making the cleaner burning "Tier 3" fuel and public education campaigns to encourage everyone to do their part.

Herbert pointed out that even though the state's population grew by 34% between 2002 and 2017, emissions dropped by 27.3%.

While he noted this is a "red letter" day for the state, he also said the fight to quell air pollution is ongoing.

"I should remind us all that this is not over," he said. "We can't rest on our laurels and say this is enough."

Longtime critics of Utah's pollution fight, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said the reclassification sends the wrong message.

"That bureaucratic change is likely to hamper, or even reverse efforts and public policies needed to further reduce our air pollution. The EPA should look at the larger picture. The Wasatch Front needs a greater commitment to air quality improvement, not less," said Jonny Vasic, the group's executive director.

While Sopkin lauded the state's plan to reduce haze that affects national parks and wilderness areas — 1,879 tons of pollutants are being reduced from a pair of coal-fired power plants — critics say the state's efforts fall well short of where they need to be.

Vasic said the EPA standard for fine particulate pollution is out of date, not having changed since 2006, and other forms of pollution are increasing in the fall and summer due to wildfires.

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Amy Joi O'Donoghue

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