It was well into the evening of March 7 when Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck presented legislation to the Utah Legislature's Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee. She had asked me to attend the hearing to answer any legal questions about HB346, designed as a response to the shroud of deadly air pollution that settles on the Wasatch Front each winter.
In an effort to bring relief from the acute levels of fine-particulate matter that plague Utah's most populous areas, Chavez-Houck proposed to free the state Air Quality Board to make rules that might be more stringent than federal regulations. Her goal was to give Utah latitude to come up with unique responses to its unique air quality problem.
It was during a robust discussion of the merits of HB346 that Rep. Mike Noel, chair of the committee and representative from Kanab, suddenly diverged from the topic to ask me about legal challenges to the Alton coal mine in Kane County. I repeatedly answered that I was not involved in any Alton mine case, but Noel insisted that his questioning was appropriate because he needed to know "why she hates my grandkids and kids."
Noel, quoted the Tribune's Paul Rolly on March 11, said: "I just want to know why she hates my grandkids and kids down there so they can't get any jobs down there."
I, too, am a parent. I sat before the committee that night because I believed that HB346 could help make life better for my daughter, one of the hundreds of thousands of children living along the Front who suffers every time we see a rise in PM2.5 levels in the air. These particulates cause systemic inflammation in her body, weakening lung, heart and brain functionality.
The risk to children, infants and the human embryo is even greater. If a pregnant mother is exposed to high levels of PM2.5, her child can suffer a lifetime of irreversible damage and vulnerability to diseases that affect virtually every organ system. From its first day in the world, a Utah child's tiny lungs could be inhaling concentrations of air pollution that are three times the national standard.
Despite this danger, our state government has not made sufficient progress to curb PM2.5 air pollution. Utah did not, as required by federal law, submit a plan that would chart a path toward meeting national health-based air quality standards (the plan was due in December 2012). An initial draft of the plan showed that state-proposed control measures would not guarantee compliance with national standards in our most populous counties not even by 2020.
The legislative committee adjourned without voting on HB364 another missed opportunity. Earlier that evening, the same committee approved legislation that would reverse Utah's ban on certain outdoor boilers. Thus, even when Utah agencies do act to improve air quality, there is a very real possibility that the Legislature may undo those rules without offering alternative solutions,.
Like Noel, I am concerned about the future of our children and grandchildren. Air pollution along the Wasatch Front endangers almost every child living in Utah. State agencies must be given the mandate, flexibility and resources needed to resolve what has become a public health emergency.
The Legislature should work with these agencies to arrive at immediate, quantifiable and enforceable measures that will dramatically reduce PM2.5. We cannot wait until after 2020 to breathe easy.
Until pollution levels are significantly reduced, our children and grandchildren are simply not safe. They are entitled to nothing short of clean, breathable air.
Joro Walker, an attorney, is director of the Utah office of Western Resources Advocates, a nonprofit protecting the West's land, air and water. On behalf of local groups, she has brought a number of legal actions against Utah agencies.