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Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action is pushing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force the state to tighten the regulation. It filed a legal petition Dec. 31, prodding the EPA to deal with the issue within the next two months.

"With Utah's health at stake, the last thing we need is a loophole allowing more pollution," said Jeremy Nichols, director of the group. "We need clean air, not exemptions that can put our kids and our families at risk."

The fact that this "breakdown" or "excess emission" rule needs to be updated is something that the state, the EPA and Utah's 1,400 air-pollution permit-holders have acknowledged for years. In fact, they have discussed what to do about it for more than two years.

But talks collapsed over whether a violation is automatic when a power plant, cement maker, refinery or other regulated emissions source has an excessive-pollution release. The companies want the law to first have a chance to explain their reasons before being accused of a violation.

Cheryl Heying, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said the EPA rejected the resolution devised several years ago by the state and the stakeholders it consulted, a group that included the Utah Manufacturers Association, the Wasatch Clean Air Coalition and Pacificorp, the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power.

"We don't think it's a loophole at all," she said. "We're not seeing them [the regulated pollution sources] go out of compliance a lot of times."

In the two most recent years, there were 20 to 40 breakdowns reported per year, state regulators estimated.

Nichols said that in Colorado, where the group successfully pushed last year for closure of a similar loophole, environmental groups, regulators and regulated companies were able to tighten the requirements after about a year of discussion.

But in Utah, he said, polluting companies can still exploit regulations that, in effect, give them permission to release more emissions than allowed under their state-issued permits when there is a breakdown. Polluters should not be given an incentive to release harmful emissions that might have been prevented by regular maintenance, equipment upgrades and better planning. Pollution from breakdowns should "be an exception and not the rule," said Nichols.

The EPA, which oversees how the state carries out the Clean Air Act, has criticized the excess-emission regulation since before 2002. That year, Heying's predecessor, Rick Sprott, noted that Utah would re-craft its breakdown rule by 2004. But the EPA has noted at least three times since then that the state has failed to do so.

In those ensuing years, the state has checked each breakdown report, and in some cases penalized the offending business for not preventing the excessive emissions.

Heying said Utah would welcome the opportunity to work out the controversy - with Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action at the table.

"It's been hard to get EPA to say what they want to see in a rule," she said.

About the group

* Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action is a nonprofit based in Denver, founded in 2005.

* Its goals are "to close the net on polluters, decrease air pollution and protect our children and communities."

* The group also pushes for stronger air-quality controls on oil and gas drilling in Colorado, as well as smog reductions in the Denver metropolitan region.

* To learn more about the group, including its complaint to the EPA about Utah's breakdown rule, visit ourcleanair.org.

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