(EnviroNews Utah) — Salt Lake City, Utah — Utah often has the most dangerous air pollution in the United States, frequently and repeatedly soaring high above EPA compliance limits for what is considered “safe” for PM 2.5 particulate pollution.
The health-hampering air crisis has become the number one issue of concern for citizens living along Northern Utah’s Wasatch Front — so much so that thousands have turned out to events at the capitol to express their discontent with the situation to local lawmakers.
Part of the problem is geographical in that Utah’s greatest population center is nestled tightly in the center of a high-altitude mountainous bowl, leading to stagnant cold air inversions where pollutants are trapped and compressed against the valley floor — an inherent issue that humans can do nothing to change. What humans can change is what they put into the airshed when inversion conditions are happening.
The EPA has given Utah a hard deadline to clean up its act and come into attainment by 2019, but a piece of legislation passed way back in 80s has made it difficult for the state to clean up its act. Specifically, the old law denies Utah regulators the ability to enforce any environmental policy stricter than EPA standards.
In the 2014 legislative session, two lawmakers, Representative Becky Edwards and Senator Gene Davis, ran bills to weaken or remove entirely, the old restrictive language, so that regulations can be implemented to suit Utah’s unique environment and move the state toward compliance with the EPA standards it has so far been unable to meet.
To the great disappointment of environmentalists, both bills crashed and burned, lacking the votes to pass through their respective branches of government, leaving Utah to face the EPA’s potential crackdown without the ability to enact its own solutions.
It’s now one year later, and both Edwards and Davis are running their bills again in hopes that increased education and mounting public pressure will yield success in what seems to be an imperative course of action if the Beehive State ever wishes to breathe easily.
With the downright deadly nature of Utah’s air quandary, passing a law that would, first of all, give the state the latitude to address its own problem might seem obvious, but in the reddest state in the union — a place rich in minerals, and saturated by conservative ideology — this is not such an easy task.
The persuasive lobby of industry at Utah’s capitol is powerful to say the least, but that didn’t stop one woman from speaking her mind on Feb. 4 to the Senate Natural Resource, Agriculture, and Environment Committee about the foul state of Utah’s air.
However, this woman was not the ordinary type you would hear speaking up loudly about the environment — no tie-dyes, Birkenstocks, or dreadlocks in this case. Her name is Alicia Connell, and she is the co-Founder of the action group Communities for Clean air, and also just happens to be a mother, republican delegate, republican precinct chair, and a devoted member of the traditionally conservative Mormon faith.
Those categories don’t typically align with environmental activism, but then again, since everyone has to breathe, air pollution is not really a partisan issue — or at least it shouldn’t be.
Connell went in front of the committee with an admirable strategy, putting forth a real-life and in-your-face example of how the current, no-stricter-than-EPA-standards restriction, is hobbling Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) from being a real environmental enforcer. Her example of choice: The Stericycle medical waste incinerator in North Salt Lake City, Utah.
The egregious and repeated emergency bypass events at the old waste burner were front-and-center news in Utah over the past year as the beleaguered company fought through storms of controversy involving fudged tests, dioxin releases, radioactive waste burning and myriad other problems.
Connell said that many of the issues with Stericycle could be addressed if the DEQ could simply enforce rules stricter than EPA standards. She told the committee she has raised multiple Stericycle concerns with the DEQ and DAQ and often gets the same response — a copout-style comeback explaining how their hands are tied due to Utah’s no-stricter-than-the-EPA restriction.
“I’m a republican Mormon mom,” said Connell. “I don’t protest, yet we had to start protesting. We had to start fighting back because the resources that should have been able to help us couldn’t,” she added.
Connell, alongside several other environmental leaders, implored the committee to push Davis’ bill through to the Senate floor where it can receive another chance to abolish the old language — an outdated code that is clearly not getting it done where cleaning up Utah’s air is concerned.
In the end, the committee heeded the words of Connell and the others and voted 4-2 in roll-call fashion to send the bill through for a vote on the Senate floor.
If you boil it all down, EPA standards just haven’t worked for Utah’s hazardous air crisis, and if one thing seems apparent it’s that something new and different needs to be done and fast.