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The Environmental Protection Agency plans to reconsider a 2016 order mandating new pollution controls at two coal-fired power plans in Utah intended to keep the skies clear around national parks.
Scott Pruitt, who heads the EPA under President Donald Trump, delivered a letter outlining his decision to Gov. Gary Herbert during a private meeting Tuesday morning.
Pruitt did not take questions about the haze plan during an impromptu press conference after the meeting. Alan Matheson, executive director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, told reporters about the letter after Pruitt left the state Capitol.
Originally, Matheson said, the EPA mandated pollution controls beyond those the state offered in its proposed Regional Haze plan, believing it would result in small improvements in the visibility around national parks within the vicinity of Rocky Mountain Power's Hunter and Huntington plants in Emery County.
Matheson said that decision was based on old computer models, and if the EPA were to reconsider using newer modeling technology, "we might get a different result."
The Regional Haze rule outlines certain visibility-specific goals for air quality in national parks and some protected areas, and asks states to come up with plans to meet those goals. In the event the EPA determines a state plan is deficient, the EPA can overrule and implement its own plan, as it did in Utah in 2016.
Rocky Mountain Power appealed the EPA's decision in court and spokesman David Eskelsen said the company plans to stay the course despite Pruitt's move to reconsider.
"Our position remains unchanged," she said. "We support the state's position that its implementation plan as originally put forward was a good plan, sound science, good policy, and we think it should have been adopted."
The governor's office declined to comment on the haze plan Tuesday. In the past, state environmental officials have defended their plan, saying they believe it complies with all of the federal requirements.
Matheson said the bulk of Tuesday's conversation with Pruitt focused on the EPA's Waters of the United States Rule. That rule attempted to make the jurisdiction of the federal Clean Water Act more specific, but attracted significant controversy from leaders in conservative states and others who said the rule expanded the authority of the EPA beyond what was originally intended. The EPA is currently in the process of writing a new definition.
Matheson said the state advised Pruitt to provide a definition that would leave landowners with more clarity regarding which waterways fell under federal purview, and which were subject to state management. He said they also suggested the EPA be more transparent about past permitting decisions, and facilitated meetings residents who were affected.
Those invited to attend lunch with Pruitt included representatives of state industry and agricultural groups, elected officials and state regulators, local farmers and water suppliers. Matheson said Pruitt had requested the state set up a meeting with specific parties he wanted to talk to. After the lunch, the Utah Sierra Club criticized the selective nature of the event.
"Scott Pruitt is listening only to those who agree with him on air quality in Utah," Lindsay Beebe, organizing representative for the Utah Sierra Club, said in a statement. "Will he meet with the outdoor recreation leaders whose businesses are harmed by air pollution from coal plants? … so far we've seen the Trump administration listen only to those who represent the narrow interests of the fossil fuel industry, while steamrolling over the thousands of Utahns who have spoken out in support of protections for public lands and clean air."
Pruitt told reporters after his meeting with Herbert and other state leaders that the Waters of the U.S. rule has a different impact on western states than it does in the east, and that the purpose of his meeting was to get more input from the state on this and other issues.
"Over the last several years, there was a re-imagining of authority" within federal agencies, Pruitt told KUTV2 News. "That's what we're addressing." Pruitt's staff did not respond to a request for an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.