The state's keystone plans to clean up wintertime pollution on the Wasatch Front won't be wrapped up in time to meet a federal deadline next week.
Regulators need to fine-tune their estimates of how much pollution will be cut and how much that will cost, smokestack industries and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agree.
So, the Utah Air Quality Board, acting on the advice of the state's air-quality staff, voted Wednesday to pull back two of the three blueprints that detail how the state intends to bring PM 2.5 pollution in line with the latest federal standards. Air-quality staff reassured the board they already have a timetable for finishing up the two plans by the middle of next year.
Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Air Quality Division, said his team was disappointed the entire 23-part plan will not be complete in time to meet the Dec. 14 deadline, but he noted the board did approve 19 important pollution-cutting measures on Wednesday that will begin having an impact right away.
"Because it's a public health issue, we need controls in place," he said. "This [delay for the Utah and Salt Lake Valley plans] will give us time to focus on additional strategies."
Virtually everyone in northern Utah will be touched by the regulations, which affect graphic arts companies, auto-body shops, Hill Air Force Base, road salting and sanding and ordinary Utahns who must have their vehicles tested for excess pollution.
And everyone is expected to benefit, too. Microscopic soot from exhaust mixes with other types of pollution, gets trapped in Utah's valleys and builds up during winter inversions.
These episodes last days and sometimes weeks, shrouding the valleys in brown haze that poses a health threat, especially for the very young, the very old and people with heart and lung problems. Those episodes have made Utah stand out sometimes as having the worst air-quality in the nation.
The public has clamored for action, and the state's business community and Gov. Gary Herbert have called the issue an important quality of life issue. But geography and weather conspire with the pollution of daily life to make solving the problem a daunting challenge.
Plus, if the state doesn't come up with a workable plan, the EPA could potentially begin blocking the flow of federal highway funds to Utah and impose curbs on new construction.
Pressures like those have forced the air-quality division to search everywhere for pollution cuts.
This is the first time Utah has had to develop strategies for cutting PM 2.5, and now it needs a pollution-cutting strategy that will work in Salt Lake and Davis counties and parts of Utah, Tooele, Weber, Box Elder and Cache counties.
Ironically, the plan for Cache County was the only one of three overarching blueprints that the Air Quality Board approved Wednesday. Cache County officials say they won't subject their residents to the vehicle-emissions testing that the plan calls for.
They even have an attorney's opinion that the state can't force the county to comply. Craig Petersen, a member of the state Air-Quality Board and the Cache County Council, reminded regulators about those objections during the tensest minutes of Wednesday's meeting. He also referred to the county's proposed alternative emissions program to keep high-polluting cars and trucks parked when pollution builds up. But it's a program EPA has said it won't accept.
After the meeting, Petersen sounded more hopeful. "I think we are going to find a compromise that will be acceptable," he said.
Board members opted to drop proposed controls on large bakeries lapse because they hadn't been able to show it would be cost effective. Controls dubbed "reasonably achievable control technology" would cost the large bakeries more than could be reasonably justified, state regulators determined.
That's basically the problem with the big regionwide blueprints for the Salt Lake Valley and for Utah County. In those areas, smokestack industries, like the five petroleum refineries, said the state overestimated the pollution-control benefits and underestimated the costs companies would have to shoulder the proposed pollution equipment. EPA, which hired an outside contractor, basically agreed more work needed to be done on that.
Once state regulators nail down the numbers, the blueprints will once again go out for public review and board approval.
Cutting pollution a tall order:
Utah's air-quality team has spent three years looking for ways to cut pollution enough to meet federal limits. They have a tough job, because to keep PM 2.5 pollution under those limits, they have to look everywhere in homes, offices, heavy industry and cars and trucks for emissions of key pollutants that can be eliminated.
In the Salt Lake County area and in Utah County, they had to cut the pollution on a typical winter day by one third. But even with all their work, they still need 4.2 tons per day of reductions in Salt Lake County and 5.2 tons in Utah County to meet federal deadlines.
In Cache County, they had to cut emissions by almost one-fourth, and regulators believe the county can meet federal targets on time.