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After an impassioned debate that invoked the drinking-water crisis in Flint, Mich., the Utah Senate is set to hear a "groundbreaking" water bill that would establish an independent scientific peer review process in the Division of Water Quality's rule-making procedures.

Under SB110, a three-person panel would convene to determine whether an action of the Division of Water Quality was scientifically defensible, defensible with modifications or indefensible. If found to be indefensible, the DWQ would be barred from enforcing the action.

New water rules, policies and permit conditions would not automatically undergo peer review; a challenging party would have to initiate the process and pay all the expenses — a condition that has drawn opposition from environmentalists and other parties.

Sponsored by Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, but drafted by a coalition of managers of publicly owned water-treatment works, the bill gained a unanimously favorable recommendation from the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Standing Committee in a Thursday hearing only after an animated discussion of the bill's fine print.

Mike Luers, the general manager of the Snyderville Basin Water Reclamation District, argued the bill could be used to deem past actions as scientifically indefensible and unenforceable, rendering million-dollar projects useless.

Leland Myers, Central Davis Sewer District manager and the chief spokesman for the rule, countered by saying there isn't anyone in Snyderville who would qualify to initiate a peer review.

To initiate the process under the bill, an individual or entity would have to hold an outstanding water quality permit, be willing and able to bear the costs of the peer review process — an estimated $65,000 per year, including administrative costs incurred by the Division of Water Quality — and prove that the challenged action would have a significant impact on the challenger.

This has caused the proposal's opponents to characterize it as an "elitist" effort to allow industry interests to buy science while cutting the public out of the process.

But Myers argued that the coalition behind the bill represents 75 percent of the state's population.

"We think this is a good process that is good for the citizens of the state," he said.

Luers said he could not support legislation that was drafted to suit the specific purposes of a group of six water treatment entities. The entities that drafted this bill, he said, were next on the list to be tasked with implementing the state's phosphorus rule, which requires water treatment plants to install technological upgrades that remove phosphorus — a nutrient that in abnormally high quantities can contribute to the formation of potentially deadly algal blooms — from treated water prior to its discharge.

"We were one of the first entities in the state to be asked to implement that standard," he said. "Leland [Myers] and these folks haven't got there yet, and this legislation is drafted by them and for them."

Walt Baker, the director of the Division of Water Quality, said that removing phosphorus is an expensive proposition, but worth it. He pointed to the drinking-water crisis in Flint, Mich., as a water quality problem.

"That was a water quality problem where pollution in the water caused the dissolution of lead out of pipes," he said.

Baker said he would lend his support to the bill, but only on the condition the bill was amended with language that would prevent the peer review of division actions that are already in place.

And he aired a laundry list of concerns about the bill, including that it could result in administrative inefficiencies or be used to skirt the existing public rule-making process. He characterized the bill as a solution in search of a problem and said he believed its supporters mistakenly view science as capable of offering a definitive answer where one often does not exist.

"Science is very important and needs to be paramount in what we do in my office," he said, "but it is not the only aspect of good public policy."

If the bill passes, Utah would become the third state in the nation to put peer review on the books; California and Minnesota have also adopted peer-review statutes.

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