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Utah's congressional delegation fervently embraces an unchallenged notion: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is an agency that's terrible for the state, strangling business and blocking progress.

But here's the truth: If you care about the health of our families and communities, you should be enormously grateful to the federal EPA. Its programs have kept Utah's compromised air from being much, much worse.

Apparently, our four representatives and two senators are competing to see who can say more disparaging things about the EPA. Rep. Mia Love warns ominously of "the abuses of the EPA." Sen. Orrin Hatch criticizes its "heavy-handed control." Rep. Chris Stewart derides its "over-reaching, economically threatening agenda."

Utah's air was recently ranked as the sixth worst in the nation for fine particle pollution, according to the American Lung Association's latest State of the Air report. The science about the wintertime inversions which plague northern Utah's urban valleys is strong and clear: It's really bad for our health. Just ask emergency room nurses and doctors: Heart attacks, dangerous asthma episodes, strokes and other critical episodes jump sharply during inversions. The bad air, literally, kills some of us.

Utah's state air officials every year release air pollution data. Look at those numbers closely, and you'll find a fascinating pattern: Emissions from our vehicles have been dropping, quite sharply. It's the sector with the greatest improvement. Without that cut, our air would be much worse.

What's the cause of this reduction? It's not that Utahns are driving less. In fact, between population growth and creeping suburbia, we're driving more. It's not that more people are riding bikes, driving electric vehicles or taking mass transit. Those trends are pointing in the right direction, but still move a modest number of Utahns.

Nope, the reason cars are polluting less is because of federal environmental rules. That's what's saving our bacon. And our lungs. And our children's lungs.

Have you heard of Tier 3, the federal program that will help clean our air in coming decades? Well, what most people don't realize is how helpful the EPA's Tier 2 program has already been.

Tier 2 car and gas standards were finalized in 2000 and phased in between 2004 and 2009. The program required a cut in the sulfur content of gas from 300 ppm to 30 ppm, at a cost of less than two cents per gallon. It also required new pollution control technologies in cars, which cost less than $100 per car. Together, those new standards mean that new cars sold today are 77 to 95 percent cleaner than those from just 15 years ago.

Tier 2 has been easily the most powerful tool in place cleaning up Utah's air. That isn't to say the measures that Utah's state air officials have instituted lately aren't important. Ordering new controls on industry, pushing to limit wood burning and requiring cleaner water heaters matter too. But the EPA's car and gas rules have helped us the most – and will, for decades to come, as Tier 3 standards began to take effect later this decade.

But you wouldn't know that if you listened to the shrill rhetoric emanating from Utah's congressional delegation. And it's not just dangerous words. The policy proposals the delegation espouses – cutting the EPA's budget, reducing its powers, ordering pointless reviews of its science and challenging its proposals – would doom Utah to much worse air if realized.

Next time Rob Bishop, Jason Chaffetz, Hatch, Mike Lee, Love and Stewart offer up yet another tired bashing of the EPA, realize what they're really doing: Trying to ensure that you and your family breathes deadly air for decades to come.

Matt Pacenza is the executive director of the environmental nonprofit HEAL Utah.