(EnviroNews Utah) — Salt Lake City, Utah — A groundswell of public outcry, building over more than three years, has led to further attempts by Utah’s legislature to respond to the demand for air quality improvement. This is especially important in the northern, metropolitan areas of the state such as Salt Lake and Cache counties –- places that routinely fail to attain the federal minimums for particulate matter (PM2.5) as well as noxious gases in winter. Much of metro Utah has unique topography: “bowl-shaped” valleys surrounded by beautiful, snow-capped peaks –- but these same majestic mountain tops also serve to trap bad air on the valley floor for days, or even weeks at a time — and the adverse health effects are real.
Most adults in Utah, and an increasing number of their children, can describe air that often contains harmful irritants to respiratory function and developing anatomy. The children will tell you that on “red air days,” they’re not allowed outside to exercise at recess.
Incumbent upon Utah’s government, through its lawmakers, is an effort to strike a balance between the desire for better air and the effort required by industry and individuals to do their part to address the problem.
Senator Gene Davis (D-Salt Lake) introduced a bill this year that would allow a specific regulatory body, Utah’s Air Quality Board, to work unfettered by limitations that have hamstrung the agency in the past.
Existing in Utah code, in statute 19-2-106, is language that prohibits the Utah Department of Air Quality (DAQ) via its Air Quality Board, from creating regulations more stringent than federal requirement, even though months of expert testimony in the public conversation indicates the state requires stricter regulations due to its uniquely occurring atmospheric inversions.
An abundance of advocacy from groups like HEAL Utah and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE) indicates the problem will not be solved without a larger effort than the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires from locales like Hutchinson, Kansas or Poughkeepsie, New York.
In addition to becoming what some describe as “The Outdoor Recreation Capitol of the World,” Utah also has abundant mineral and petroleum wealth, combined with its modest manufacturing sector, which helps to create the state’s admirable economic and employment numbers.
A growing populace that is expected to double in the next 15 years heightens the concern of multiple groups, including representatives and lobbyists of the Utah manufacturing, mining and petroleum sectors who successfully rebuffed SB87.
SB87 LEAVING COMMITTEE
On Wednesday, February 4, 2015 the bill cleared the Utah Senate’s Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Environment Committee on a vote of 4-2-1. The tally looked like this:
Allen Chistensen (R-Davis County) – Y
Jani Iwamoto (D-Salt Lake) – Y
Peter Knudsen (R-Box Elder, Cache, Tooele Counties) -Y
Brian Shiozawa (R-Salt Lake County) – Y
Margaret Dayton – (R-Utah County) – N
Evan Vickers – (R-Beaver, Iron, Washington Counties) – N
At that committee hearing, a lobbyist was observed pulling at least one committee member into the hallway to offer additional information on industry’s concerns. Citizen activists, noting what they felt was suspicious arm-twisting, exposed the situation to their own supporters but by the time Davis’ bill got to the Senate floor on the second reading calendar a little more than two weeks later, industry had all the time it needed to arrange the killing.
ANATOMY OF A KILLED BILL
Two of the Senators who had voted the bill out of the committee, Christensen and Knudson, reversed their support after hearing from Sen. Wayne Harper who says the bill would allow for “complete repeal” of the existing statute and that it would not include adequate funding for science-based regulations. Harper said, “that would hamper ideas for moving forward.”
Harper’s comments seemed to come from a letter issued by mining, manufacturing and petroleum representatives, which insisted that the board would be subject to “public emotion” rather than science. In reality, the bill did not seek to omit science-based solutions in any of its language.
That same letter wore a physical stamp of approval from Senator Margaret Dayton, and was distributed to members of the Senate shortly before 87 hit the floor — a move that Davis told EnviroNews ultimately helped to kill his bill.
In addition to Harper and Knudsen’s flip-flops, Sen. Vickers (R-Beaver, Iron, Washington Counties), the same lawmaker suspiciously photographed in the hallway with an industry representative during the committee hearing, went from a Nay in committee to an “Aye on Two,” during the floor vote.
Contradicting previous testimony proffered in committee and on the Senate floor that day, Sen. Dayton first rose to ask the sponsor, “What (existing air quality) rules do you propose to eliminate?” Davis said that none would be eliminated; the bill would only repeal Utah Code 19-2-106 that preempts any solutions other than those issued by the EPA — restating the need for Utah solutions unique to Utah problems.
Dayton testified to the Senate that the Air Quality Board (appointed by the Governor and including a majority of commercial, industrial interests), needed only to issue written findings after public notice and input, and the state only needed to “study the issues and follow the process… we can still do that,” she claimed, “There’s no need for this regulation.”
Immediately following Dayton’s words, Sen. Scott Jenkins, (R-Davis, Weber Counties) who represents an area completely within the “non-attainment” zones, helped complete the bill’s assassination by stating that Utah’s air “has never been cleaner,” obviously ignoring the “red air quality” alerts of recent years. “We’ve been doing a great job. We will continue to get better.” Jenkens seemed to be very much enjoying himself while clearly playing to the industrial lobby.
Several Senators spoke in favor of Davis’ SB87. Senator Todd Weiler (R-Woods Cross, Davis County) emphasized a theme familiar to the Utah legislature and one that has been repeated in the presentations surrounding this bill. Weiler said, “We hear a lot about federal dictation of regulations affecting our state, so isn’t this a state’s rights issue?” He was responding to pressure being brought upon the sponsor and the bill, as the bill as discussed on the Senate floor.
Weiler took a beating on air quality last year after acting as Stericycle’s practical sole liaison to the outside world following a public attack on the beleaguered company in a town-hall. The heated meeting addressed accusations that the med-waste giant had cheated on air tests at its controversial North Salt Lake medical waste incinerator. Similar arguments used by many voices to defend Stericycle were involved with Davis’ bill, i.e.: more determination for Utah over its own regulatory destiny.
When Senator Luz Escamilla (D-Salt Lake City) rose to comment, she observed that the debate was “getting more interesting by the minute,” as she re-emphasized the bill would not change current rules (in response to Sen. Dayton’s claims), and mentioned that a Harvard Study was pointing to credible data indicating that air pollution and autism were linked. As to the “states’ rights” argument, Escamilla stated members of “our [Utah Air Quality] Board are better prepared and more responsive to our [states’] needs.”
Supporters had indicated the bill would enable Utah to address its own air quality problems with the state’s own solutions. In the end, that logic fell, for the most part, on deaf ears, Interestingly along these lines is the fact that just prior to the floor presentation, many members of the Senate had attended a luncheon sponsored by industry lobbyists.
In Davis’ presentation summation, he again appealed to the often-repeated demand for “states’ rights,” which he said are reinforced by his bill. He re-stated that SB87 provided a way for Utah to achieve more control by going beyond what the federal government is using. In the end, that was what bothered his colleagues in the Senate.
After ending the debate, supporters were unable to convince the body to vote Yea, especially without the defectors from the committee approval, Christensen and Knudsen. Ultimately, the bill went down in flames to a 12-16-1.
THE KILLED BILL
Final Senate Vote defeating SB87:
Yeas – 12
Adams, J. S.
Nays – 16
Van Tassell, K.
Absent, not voting – 1