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Utah's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is beginning the new year with a long list of tasks, and one of its goals is central to all others: building public support of the department's mission and having that support trickle up to lawmakers.

The thought behind the public relations campaign, said Alan Matheson, DEQ executive director, is that if more Utahns are more informed of the role the DEQ plays in the quality of daily life in Utah, public opinion will influence the state's political leaders to fund air quality research and pass a ban on sales of pollution-emitting water heaters for home use.

"On a communications side, we're getting beyond the details of regulations and helping people to understand how we influence their lives for good," he said. "As people understand what we do, we expect more support from the public and public officials."

Last year's efforts to educate Utahns were highlighted among the DEQ's accomplishments in the agency's 2015 State of the Environment report, released Tuesday. Matt Pacenza, executive director of HEAL Utah, called the report a "straightforward and factual" account of the DEQ's progress over the past year.

But many of the efforts emphasized in the report involved loose ends, highlighting the many challenges that will follow the DEQ this year. A stronger emphasis on public relations could do a lot of good toward resolving those remaining challenges, Pacenza said, but it's not easy to change public opinion, Pacenza said.

"We live in a time now where people's reaction to every single piece of information they get is a mix of hostility and prejudice," he said. "We're so tribal and so polarized that … all information is treated suspiciously, and everyone has their own facts."

The result, Pacenza said, is that Utahns have largely divided into two camps on environmental issues: one that believes the state unilaterally sided with industry interests and will never take action to improve the environment, and another that believes all forms of government intervention are wrong. Neither side is particularly willing to listen to more moderate messages, Pacenza said.

Yet public opinion could dictate the direction environmental policy takes in 2016.

"It's clear that the public is concerned about air quality, and appropriately so," Matheson said.

The state has reduced emissions by 35 percent over the past 10 years, in spite of population growth, he said, and trends suggest that the decline will continue.

But the current situation is not acceptable to the public, Matheson said, so air quality remains one of the agency's top concerns.

"We recognize that air quality is fundamental to health, quality of life and the continued success of our economy," he said.

While PM 2.5 and the wintertime inversion will likely remain hot topics for years to come, ozone is also on the DEQ's radar, Matheson said. It'll be a major issue again in 2016, he said, as the state moves to monitor and reduce ozone in time to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency's new health standards. Even with those efforts, he said, it's likely the Wasatch Front and Tooele County will be declared "nonattainment" areas for exceeding federal health standards. Nonattainment status means the area does not meet federal maximums for pollution.

Ozone is also a problem in the Uintah Basin, where high levels of the pollutant have been detected in winter. Matheson said this unusual development is one of many issues that will require further research in 2016 and is one of the reasons the DEQ is pulling for the state Legislature to approve a $250,000 budget for air quality research.

"One of the challenges we face is that federal standards are based on very different climates," he said. "It's important that we understand the chemistry so we can intervene effectively to reduce the formation of pollutants."

Funding won't be the only air quality battle to take place in the Legislature this year. Actions that originated within the DEQ have also become legislative matters, and Matheson said there is work going on behind the scenes to ensure the water heaters rule, which would limit water heater sales within Utah to those units that do not emit many harmful NOx emissions, is not overruled.

Pacenza said the decision on that particular issue, and related decisions regarding the state's building codes, will be "enormously consequential."

"I could make the argument that they will be the most significant votes on air quality that the Legislature has taken in many years," he said.

Air quality issues dominated the department's most visible work in 2015, but they might have to share the stage with water concerns in 2016.

The occurrence of several algal blooms in 2014 and 2015 has raised the public's awareness of the nutrient pollution that is building in Utah's water, Matheson said, and 2016 may be the year that concern comes to a head.

"We recognize that this is a growing challenge for the state, and we want to get out ahead of it," he said. "It will certainly be a big issue that will probably have some activity in the Legislature, and we're going to try to protect our waterways in a reasonable and balanced and cost-effective way."

Matheson said the DEQ is already working with wastewater treatment facilities and agricultural operations to address the issue, and research to characterize the exact nature and scope of the pollution is ongoing.

The DEQ has also begun to take action to address another problem Matheson said is threatening Utah's waterways and the environment in general: spills from industrial and commercial sources. These spills have grown in frequency in recent years, he said, and the DEQ has created a new position to coordinate the department's response to such incidents.

"We're trying to work with various facilities to prevent the spills in the first place," he said, "and when they do happen, to ensure they are cleaned up fully and quickly."

Pacenza said there are other environmental issues flying under the radar that could be ripe in 2016: depleted uranium and coal ash. Both issues are due for some form of state action this year, Pacenza said — state rules for dealing with coal ash disposal likely will provide necessary tools for prompting power generators to deal with this form of waste more effectively, and state regulators likely will make a decision soon regarding EnergySolutions' latest proposal for the storage of depleted uranium in Tooele County.

That last one may not happen in 2016, Pacenza said, but eventually "our state officials will move beyond 'careful reviewing' depleted uranium, and that's going to be a huge decision."

Twiter: @EmaPen Environmental issues to watch

Air quality

Official word from the EPA on Utah's "serious" nonattainment designation • Under the new designation, the state would be required to develop a new, more stringent plan for addressing PM 2.5 in northern Utah. Last month, the EPA released a proposal that, if approved, would give the state more time to address its new status. But the EPA has not yet indicated whether the terms of the proposal are final, or whether Utah will become a serious nonattainment area by virtue of having missed a Dec. 31, 2015, deadline for air quality compliance.

Can Utah comply with the EPA's new ozone health standards? • The state has one year to reduce ozone levels to below federal health standards; those areas that do not comply will be given nonattainment status by the EPA, triggering a new implementation process similar to the current effort to reduce PM 2.5.

Will the EPA accept Utah's haze plan? • A lawsuit prodded the agency to get serious about evaluating the state's plan to comply with the federal Regional Haze Rule, but in December, the agency delayed its decision in favor of a public comment period intended to publicly vet two alternative plans.

Utah will develop a Clean Power contingency plan • Utah has joined 22 states in a lawsuit intended to block the Clean Power Plan from taking full effect, but just in case that doesn't pan out, the DEQ plans to begin developing a plan for compliance.


Ongoing study of nutrient pollution in state waters, particularly in Utah Lake and the Jordan River • Algal blooms in 2014 and 2015 brought attention to problems with Utah's water quality, prompting additional research and preliminary action on the issue. More formal action, including possible water-related legislation, is expected in 2016.

Increased state response to industrial or business-related spills • The DEQ has an opening for a newly created position to monitor spills and ensure the spills are cleaned up quickly and properly.

Slow administrative movement regarding the Lake Powell Pipeline • The final version of a preliminary licensing proposal for the project is due to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this spring, but the governor has called for funding to be channeled toward research that would determine whether the project is truly necessary.

Solid waste

State deliberations regarding depleted uranium • State engineers are reviewing the latest draft of EnergySolutions' proposal to dispose of large quantities of depleted uranium — initially a low-life radioactive waste that becomes more radioactive with time — at its Utah facility.