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Asking the public to review a set of air-emissions proposals drafted by local environmental groups would be a waste of time, according to the Department of Environmental Quality, but state regulators may use the suggested concepts in the near future.
The state Air Quality Board voted Wednesday at the recommendation of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to deny a petition for a formal public evaluation of three proposals brought by local advocates. Department employees argued that the ideas are likely to be considered later this year as the state begins work on a new plan to decrease small-particulate pollution, and reviewing the potentially redundant rules during the planning process would be a waste of limited resources and could cause delays.
But the coalition behind the petition which included HEAL Utah, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and Western Resource Advocates said their additional rules would create opportunities for public participation not afforded by the administrative processes for creating a new state implementation plan to address harmful pollution called particulate matter 2.5. Utah is required to do so this year because it missed a December 2015 deadline for attaining the Environmental Protection Agency's standards for the pollution.
"The [state implementation plan] process is a nightmare; that's the reality," said Tim Wagner, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. "The public just wants to feel like they have an opportunity to be engaged in something that they can see has an opportunity to make a difference."
After a nearly two-hour discussion of the rules' technical details, the Air Quality Board decided to vote separately on public review for each of the three proposals. Two of the rules would have required smaller sources of pollution to procure "offsets" like larger industrial sources and would have made continuous emissions monitoring the default requirement for large sources of emissions; they were voted down 8-0 and 6-2, respectively.
The third rule, which would have imposed limits on the amount of emissions released by industrial sources during a 24-hour period, garnered a split vote, calling for a tiebreaker from DEQ Executive Director Alan Matheson.
After stating that he appreciated the effort and dedication that went into crafting the rules, Matheson said he would vote against a public review of the proposal.
"I am not convinced that spending our staff time going through the administrative process … is the best use of our time to clean the air," he said. "Every time there's a request, it takes us away from the work of reducing air pollution."
Matt Pacenza, executive director of HEAL Utah, contended that the process would not require as great an investment of resources as the department said. He pointed to the Division of Air Quality's (DAQ) rule on water heaters, which he said was put out for public comment a little over a year ago with just a three-page memo despite the fact that it would impact every home in Utah.
But Dave McNeill, a branch manager within the DAQ, noted that rules adopted by the Air Quality Board are limited to regulating things such as emissions from factories and businesses, and going beyond that can result in legislative action against the DEQ.
"If you try to tell us to do something that … the Legislature does not think is within our purview, you'll see what happened with our wood-burning rule, you'll see what happened with the water heaters rule they'll yank the authority away from us," he said.
Air Quality Board member and Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall led the motions that attempted to pass two of the three proposals. She thought it was unreasonable to shut down public proposals because they were not as nuanced as those crafted by DEQ staff, she said, adding that she respects Matheson's decision about his allocation of staff resources
The problem, she said, is that the DEQ doesn't have the resources to work with the rough ideas that come from the public.
"We have avenues for public engagement," Mendenhall said, "but we don't have the staff to accommodate that in reality."