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A marathon day of public hearings on how to curb Utah's "regional haze" drew a large, opinionated crowd to Salt Lake City's downtown library on Tuesday but nearly six hours of active debate yielded no clear consensus on whether the Environmental Protection Agency should give the OK to the state's current haze plan or require stricter pollution controls at two coal-fired plants in central Utah.
The standing-room-only crowd spilled out of the conference room designated for the EPA-hosted hearing and grew to occupy most of the library's fourth floor. Environmental activists, outdoor enthusiasts and national parks representatives were there to argue in favor of the EPA's proposal to reject a portion of the state's implementation plan and require the installation of additional pollution controls at Rocky Mountain Power's Hunter and Huntington plants. Coal industry representatives and employees, as well as residents of communities near the power plants, expressed concerns that the federal plan would cost locals their jobs and their way of life while doing little or nothing to benefit their communities.
Many complained about the location of Tuesday's hearing, which they said prevented many of those most affected by the plan from attending.
And if the meeting had been held in central Utah rather than Salt Lake City, EPA officials would have been able to witness the quality of the air around the plants air that's much cleaner than the air in Salt Lake or Utah counties, they said.
"The majority of the comments in favor of the federal plan speak of the value of air quality," central Utah resident Jared Carson told the EPA. "That's something both sides value. One of the reasons we live in the communities we do is because of the air quality. If I had to live in Salt Lake I would probably be willing to pay ... to fix it. It's one of the reasons I don't live there. But the air quality that you see in the Salt Lake and Utah valleys, that's not coming from those power plants."
Developed as a component of the Clean Air Act, the Regional Haze Rule is meant to protect 156 national parks and wilderness areas from visibility-impairing pollution by mandating a return to "natural" air conditions by 2064. Utah's plan to accomplish this, approved by the state Air Quality Board in June, imposed no new pollution restrictions on coal-fired plants near Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
Some on Tuesday argued that pollution controls at Hunter and Huntington isn't an issue of just visibility, but also of public health.
"The deterioration of regional air is bad for us all," said Cordell Roy. "I submit that we all benefit as visitors to those iconic areas, but also as residents of those regions."
Biologists and representatives from the national parks argued that emitting pollutants such as nitrogen oxides into the air starts a cascade of harmful outcomes in central and southern Utah's desert environments. Air pollution damages native flora and encourages the growth of non-native species.
And proponents of the federal plan argued that these costs as well as the loss of funds related to public health, travel and tourism should be weighed against the hundreds of millions cited by Rocky Mountain Power as the cost of the pollution controls required by the federal plan.
Commenters spoke of paying $450 a month for asthma medications, thousands of dollars for trips to the ER, or of simply missing out on recess or playing with friends because of medical conditions. Others, such as Kyle Lore, a chef, said the state's growing reputation for bad air was detrimental to their livelihood.
A few people said they couldn't believe they were siding with the federal government on anything, but took the hearing as an opportunity to plead with the EPA for more federal oversight of environmental issues in Utah.
"I would say this is not easy for me," Dave Thomas told the EPA. "My father was a coal miner. His father was a coal minter. I'm well aware of the things that happen when coal mines and jobs close down, but I am still asking the EPA to reject the state implementation plan. My basis is that I have absolutely no faith that the Utah environmental regulators will do anything to clean up the air in Utah unless there is a federal presence."
The EPA's move to offer up both proposed actions for public comment was unusual, but not unprecedented, said Rich Mylott, a spokesman for EPA Region 8. Though divisive, the hearing was successful, he said, and garnered an estimated 150 or 200 comments, providing the EPA with valuable local feedback, Mylott said. He expects that many more comments will arrive via online and mail submissions before March's public comment deadline.