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The Environmental Protection Agency is again under fire for not reviewing Utah air quality proposals in a timely fashion, with two groups saying the feds should have classified Utah's small-particle pollution as "serious" weeks ago.
Two national organizations, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Environmental Health, intend to sue the EPA for its failure to "perform multiple mandatory duties" required of it by the Clean Air Act, with the agency missing deadlines established in federal legislation on more than 50 occasions in 38 states.
In Utah, according to the groups' notice of intent, the EPA missed its July 1 deadline to take action after the state itself missed a deadline for bringing air quality up to federal standards.
Under the Clean Air Act, when a geographic area doesn't meet federal standards for certain pollutants, such as PM 2.5 and ozone, it's determined to be a "nonattainment" area. Once a nonattainment area is designated, states have a period of time to bring the air quality in that area into compliance with the standard. Missing such a deadline sets into motion a series of steps, beginning with the EPA's reclassification of the nonattainment area as a "serious" nonattainment area. That designation requires the state to make a new, more stringent plan to address air quality.
Utah's deadline for its PM 2.5 nonattainment areas Salt Lake City, Provo and Logan was Dec. 31, 2015. But it became evident earlier that year that Utah would not make the deadline, so in November the EPA proposed to reclassify Utah's nonattainment areas early, in exchange for granting the state more time to draft its implementation plan.
However, the EPA "was unable to finalize its November proposal" and has yet to declare Utah's new PM 2.5 status, according to agency spokeswoman Lisa McClain-Vanderpool.
Utah areas that did not meet the Dec. 31 deadline will be reclassified as serious when the EPA issues its final determinations of attainment, she said.
Jonathan Evans, a senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said that's something he believes the EPA should already have done.
"It's not like delay is going to clear up the problem, " he said. "Essentially they're just allowing people to be hospitalized."
Unfortunately, Evans said, the EPA has "a pattern and practice of not meeting their statutory deadlines," and environmental groups have found that suing the agency to get court-enforced deadlines put in place is an effective means of getting the EPA to take action.
"If we don't hold EPA's feet to the fire," he said, "a lot of these decisions can be subject to political pressure and delay that can harm the public health."
Evans said that while funding and political attacks have an impact on the EPA's functioning, he believes the agency often chooses to delay decisions to avoid taking actions that could lead to more public scrutiny.
Matt Pacenza, executive director of the environmental group HEAL Utah, said that while his organization was not involved in the suit against the EPA, he was grateful that there are attorneys at work to ensure the agency does release Utah's reclassification decision.
At the same time, he said, he sympathizes with the EPA and believes it's unfortunate that key air quality policy decisions may have to play out in court.
"[The EPA has] an overwhelming amount of work, and they're getting hit on all sides," Pacenza said. "It's not like they're out golfing and having barbecues and not working hard."
Meanwhile, Pacenza said, state and local actions are delayed while officials wait for the EPA's decision.
"Deadlines matter," he said. "You want to start the hard work of actually coming up with a plan. What we all know is that Utah has hard work left to do, and that hard work may affect our transportation, our homes and our buildings. The sooner we figure out where to make those cuts, the better."
Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said his planning staff has started doing some modeling and laying the groundwork for a new state implementation plan. However, he said, the state is still waiting to hear from the EPA whether that plan will be subject to new criteria.
Twitter: @EmaPen Missed environmental deadlines
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Environmental Health intend to sue the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to uphold the Clean Air Act by missing more than 50 deadlines in 38 states. The groups say the EPA missed deadlines for areas in Utah that the agency had planned to deem as "serious" for not meeting air pollution standards.
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