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Over at Alcoholics Anonymous, they say the first step to solving a problem is to recognize that you have one. Sounds logical enough.

Over at the Environmental Protection Agency, a formal determination that the quality of the air in the most populated parts of Utah is flat unacceptable would be a way to delay the necessary steps to clean it up. Sounds pretty bureaucratic.

EPA could look up from the data and state the obvious, that Utah stands absolutely no chance of showing that it has reduced specific kinds of air pollution in Salt Lake City, Provo and Logan to the levels required by the Clean Air Act by the deadline. Which is in less than three weeks.

The agency could then declare those bits of Utah the first in the nation to not only be, in legal-speak, in "nonattainment" — which it has officially been since 2009 — but in "serious nonattainment."

To be labeled "serious" would, one might expect, bring the hammer of federal air quality regulations down harder and more rapidly. But what it would really do is allow the EPA and their opposite numbers at the Utah Division of Air Quality twice as much time — three years instead of 18 months — to implement any restrictions thought useful and necessary to clean up our air.

It's less a call to arms than a capitulation. Which, given the depth of the problem and its biggest cause — geographic and climate factors beyond anyone's control — might just be stating the obvious.

Even the folks at DAQ are conflicted on the matter. The "serious" label could give the state more time to crack a very tough nut. The specific pollutant everyone is worried about, teeny-tiny particles called PM2.5, is horribly damaging to hearts and lungs. But it is also maddeningly difficult to track down. Much of it does not pour out of tailpipes or smokestacks, but assembles itself in the air out of other chemicals.

But the label could also be a public relations disaster for a state that takes pride in its rapid economic growth.

This is how it should work:

The EPA should see that Utah is in "serious nonattainment," but refrain from calling it that. Instead, it should mark the missed Dec. 31 deadline and start the process of imposing tougher limits on such things as permits for refineries. And it should help the area get sufficient supplies of a new-generation gasoline, Tier III, that could be a big help.

Because, as they say at AA, sometimes you can't solve a problem until you surrender to a higher power.

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