WildEarth Guardians filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. District Court in Denver on Wednesday, saying the agency failed to uphold the Clean Air Act and to protect Utahns' health by not making the state clean up fine-particle pollution.
Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians' climate and energy program director, said state regulators are putting the public health behind the interests of polluters.
"Clean air delayed is clean air denied," Nichols said in a news release. "Utah's pro-pollution stance and continued foot-dragging is a recipe for disaster, both economically and environmentally. We need intervention from the EPA to ensure this mess is cleaned up, and we need it now."
EPA spokeswoman Lisa McClain-Vanderpool said, "We received the complaint from WildEarth Guardians yesterday afternoon, and we are reviewing it."
WildEarth Guardians, which also has sued over pollution from Kennecott Utah Copper, said the EPA has let Utah fall years behind a deadline to clean up PM2.5 pollution, which builds up in northern Utah valleys when high-pressure systems dig in for days and sometimes weeks at a time.
Under the Clean Air Act, state regulators were to submit a plan to reduce PM2.5 on the Wasatch Front by June 14, 2011. The plan was to be in place by next December and pollution reduced by Dec. 14, 2015, WildEarth Guardians said.
Utah regulators have been working on the plan for years but have struggled to piece together a strategy that gets wintertime pollution cleaned up fast enough. In recent months, they've implemented regulations that cover everything from industrial operations to low-fume paints, home cleaners and even hair spray to reduce key pollutants.
Still, they have not been able to set comprehensive plans that cut emissions enough in Utah County and an area that includes, Salt Lake, Tooele, Davis, Weber and Box Elder counties even with a five-year extension to 2019.
Although the Utah Division of Air Quality has promised EPA the plans this summer, regulators still need to find another 22 tons of emissions on a typical winter day, and to reach the EPA's 2019 target level of 52 tons of pollution on a typical winter day, Utah County will have to cut another 10 tons of emissions.
WildEarth Guardians noted its suit has implications nationwide, since California, Arizona and Alaska also have failed to meet PM2.5 deadlines.
"This suit," Nichols said, "is about compelling the EPA to stand up for clean air in Salt Lake City and neighboring communities, as well as across the nation."
PM2.5 has a wide variety of health impacts, ranging from irritated throats and chest tightness to asthma attacks, heart trouble and even premature death.
WildEarth Guardians estimates particle pollution causes from 1,000 to 2,000 Utahns to die prematurely each year. It shaves two years from the lives of people who live on the Wasatch Front roughly one-fourth of the impact of a pack-a-day smoking habit, the group says.
With Utah's failure to submit a complete plan, the EPA is required under the Clean Air Act to begin a process that triggers a new, two-year deadline for an approved plan either from the state or the EPA itself.
The suit was filed in Denver because that is where the regional office that oversees Utah is located.