Clean air bills sparse this Legislative session, 2 still being considered

Thursday , March 08, 2018 - 5:15 AM

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s bad air days due to wintertime inversions typically coincide with the state Legislature’s 45-day session, providing a visual backdrop that underscores the need to take action. But this year’s weather failed to provide that sense of urgency.

Bo Call, who manages the air monitoring section of Utah’s Division of Air Quality, said 2018 has produced only two bad air days so far in problem counties along the Wasatch Front — compared to 2017’s eight to 10 days of atmospheric muck. That count only includes inversions — not fireworks, dust storms or wildfires.

“The presence or absence of inversions is kind of an interesting factor in the whole issue because it affects public concern and outrage and what we try to do in planning rallies and all kinds of activities,” said Dr. Brian Moench, board president for Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment (UPHE). “It’s perhaps the only instance where public engagement and concern can vary one hour from the next.”

But Moench believes that emphasis on inversions is misplaced, pointing to recent research indicating that even lower levels of ozone and particulate pollution can cause serious health problems, including increased incidents of stroke, heart attacks and pneumonia.

“One of the most powerful messages in recent years is what air pollution does to the brain. That’s why it’s frustrating to us to be so dependent on inversions to prick the conscience of legislators and to get the public to be engaged,” Moench said.

In terms of legislative progress during this year’s 45-day session that ends Thursday, Moench said his hopes “rise and fall almost by the hour.” He and UPHE Executive Director Denni Cawley have been tracking bills that could either help alleviate or exacerbate air pollution along the Wasatch Front. Both agree that House Bill 38 is a step in the right direction but doesn’t go quite far enough.

HB 38 would decrease the number of days each July — from 14 to eight — when the public can shoot off fireworks. The measure cleared both chambers and is ready to sign into law.

“The growing trend now is to use fireworks for any kind of private use,” Cawley said. “Then there are communities around sporting events where fireworks are used, and those emissions are full of heavy metals that are really bad for us. They also didn’t take the step of allowing cities to ban fireworks,” with the exception of zones deemed to be fire hazards.

“In the overall scheme of things, it was a small step,” Moench said.

Dr. Bryce Peterson, a family physician with Cope Family Medicine/Ogden Clinic in Bountiful, said it’s well-documented that stroke and heart attack risk increase right after holiday revelry involving fireworks. 

“As an individual and a physician, I can’t understand why aerial fireworks are allowed. They’re obviously popular and they’re fun, but they’re dangerous,” Peterson said. 

From his perspective, a combination of government regulation and personal habit change will be needed to solve Utah’s dirty air. Peterson is encouraged by the number of solar-powered homes and other structures he sees in his community.

“We need some help from the government in order to get everyone to be aware of the problem and to help control some of the major players causing the problem,” Peterson said. “Without the government trying to make sure people engage at the minimum level, there’s no chance of winning this battle in Utah.”

Other potential clean air advances in this year’s legislative session include House Bill 171, which passed the House but still awaits Senate approval. That measure would establish fines for diesel vehicles that were altered to “roll coal” or puff black smoke out the tailpipe.  It also requires local health departments to report repeat offenders to the Motor Vehicle Division.

RELATED: Diesel industry speaks in favor of Utah bill meant to curb coal-rolling

Cawley also applauded House Bill 101, which would establish a three-year pilot program to test diesel emissions in Utah County — the only county in Utah’s nonattainment area without one. As of Wednesday afternoon, HB 101 still awaited final Senate action. 

“We wanted to see a stronger bill,” Cawley said. “It’s a way to collect data, but it does not require somebody to do something about their vehicle that didn’t pass.”

A bill that would require air quality instruction as part of driver’s education programs — House Bill 331 — also awaits final Senate action. 

A few bills are sounding off alarms for clean air advocates because of the potential damage they could cause. One such measure is Senate Bill 234, which would create an inland port authority in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant.

“Our concern is for the health of the community. We’d be looking at higher diesel emissions,” Cawley said. “We’re also concerned about the motivation behind running this bill at the last minute, especially if there are plans to increase oil, gas and coal-related operations in that area.”

SB 234 cleared the Senate Monday, March 5, and still awaited final consideration by the House Wednesday afternoon.

According to Cawley and Moench, key actions that could greatly improve the Wasatch Front airshed include: eliminating wood burning as much as possible, implementing statewide diesel emissions testing, regulating the private use of fireworks, devoting half of the gasoline tax to mass transit rather than roads, and updating emission factors for refinery smokestacks.

But those will have to be addressed at a future legislative session — perhaps when the air looks really bad.

Contact reporter Cathy McKitrick at 801-625-4214 or Follow her on Twitter at @catmck

Sign up for e-mail news updates.