Dirty air
Regulators' hands are tied
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Groups of Utahns worried about unhealthy levels of pollution in Wasatch Front air say they will continue to fight for a repeal of state permits granted for oil refinery expansion. But, along with appealing to the state Department of Environmental Quality and perhaps filing a lawsuit in the likely event the appeal is denied, the groups should be targeting state legislators.

Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club and Utah Moms for Clean Air are right that big polluters such as the Tesoro refinery in northern Salt Lake City should do more to reduce their toxic emissions. Especially because Utah must reduce soot levels to meet federal Environmental Protection Agency standards or face sanctions, it is counterproductive to allow a polluting company to expand and increase its emissions.

Under the Tesoro expansion approved by the DEQ in September, the refinery will increase oil production and, at the same time, boost its emissions of volatile organic compounds by 16 percent. VOCs contribute to Utah's toxic summer and winter pollution levels. The expansion plan would also reduce sulphur by just less than 8 percent.

The groups say, and they are right, that state regulators have not been as transparent as they should be about how they make decisions and how they analyze the data.

But the fact is, state laws make it all but impossible for anyone, including the protesting groups or even the courts, to hold either the refinery's owners or regulators to any standards except the current ones. It makes a lot of sense to require refineries, when they expand or otherwise change their operations, to adopt best available technology to reduce pollution. Most power plants are required to do this.

However, while Utah legislators don't like being held to federal requirements, they seem even more loath to allow state agencies to adopt more stringent state standards that would supersede the EPA rules.

The expanded Tesoro plant's emissions are under the EPA's cap for volatile organic compounds. So all the Department of Environmental Quality can do is grant the permit.

Salt Lake County's smog is at times so thick that it has been given an "F" grade by the American Lung Association. But that reality doesn't seem to matter to the Utah politicians who decide how much pollution the state will allow. A new state law places the burden of establishing scientific reasons why a permit should not be granted on the shoulders of any opponents instead of on regulators, where it belongs.

In Utah, regulators aren't allowed to hold polluting industries to account.