Air Quality Bill Tabled in Senate Committee

(KCPW News) At the moment, Utah law stipulates that the state’s clean air standards cannot surpass federal standards in stringency. However, given the unique air quality concerns in Utah, many clean air advocates say relying on broad, nationally-imposed federal regulations for Utah’s air doesn’t make sense.

For that reason, Democratic Sen. Gene Davis proposes SB 164, a bill that effectively would allow the state to create its own air quality standards above and beyond what the federal government calls for. Davis said such an amendment is necessary to create standards that work uniquely for Utah.

Here’s Sen. Davis speaking in support of his bill on Tuesday:

“As we have our discussion on the federal government, I’m kind of wondering, why do have it that way, instead of where we could do the Utah way and really try to figure out how to deal with our air quality issues.”

But members of the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Committee were skeptical that the bill was justified or even necessary. Republican Sen. Evan Vickers noted that there is already a process in place to overrule federal clean air standards.

But Davis said that process is “cumbersome,” and it rarely yields necessary changes.

“When you read what the process is to get that new idea forward and try to address that, it’s pretty chilling in the way you’d go about trying to make that happen,” Davis said. “So it’s not a good, open process to be able to have that open discussion.”

Still, Vickers said he would rather reform the process for overriding federal standards, rather than take up SB 164.

“If we’ve established some kind of a process that really is realistically too cumbersome—I don’t understand that process, I’ve never read through it, I don’t know—then that’s maybe where we ought to focus,” Vickers said.

Vickers joked that Davis could just move to a less-affected area: “I do have a realtor friend in Cedar City that’ll sell you some property. We do have a little better air quality there, but maybe it’s moving south, too.”

Among the public commenters was a mix of industry representatives and clean air proponents. James Holtkamp of the Utah Manufacturers Association spoke out against SB 164. He agrees that significant health issues are at stake, but he doesn’t see the current process as difficult to navigate.

“I would disagree that this is somehow cumbersome, and I’d even respectfully disagree that it is chilling,” Holtkamp said. “I really think, and we believe strongly that, if we’re going to request the citizens of the state—the companies in the state—to spend money to make sacrifices for the benefit of all of us in cleaning up the air for the benefit of public health, we should make sure that those expenditures and those resources are based on public health and environment protection in the state of Utah.”

Democratic Senator Jim Dabakis expressed some frustration with the Manufacturers Association’s position on the bill.

“To say, ‘Just leave everything the way it is. The status quo is OK. We certainly don’t want to change the standards. We’re perfectly happy. Get due process for all the polluters.’ I’m disappointed,” said Dabakis.

Holtkamp responded that manufacturers recently have been doing more than required. Furthermore, he said that industry in Utah has a “bullseye” on their back.

“As long as there is a benefit to public health and the environment in the state of Utah, we will participate. What we don’t want to see are more stringent rules that cost a lot of money that have no benefit,” Holtkamp said.

But citizens representing clean air groups did speak to the “chilling” effect decried by Holtkamp, relating some of their experience with trying to suggest changes to Utah officials.

Ingrid Griffey of Utah Moms for Clean Air:

“This statute as it written now really does have a chilling effect. When Utah Moms for Clean Air discusses different ideas—different concepts for helping to clean our air—when we go to people in the Governor’s Office, when we go to legislators like yourself, very often we’re told, ‘We can’t discuss that idea. That goes past federal regulations, therefore it’s against the law here in Utah.”

Matt Pacenza of HEAL Utah thinks the Division of Air Quality Board, the board that reviews changes to clean air policy, is slanted in favor of industry—slanted to the point of being nearly impossible to persuade. He said that his group and others proposed changes to Utah’s state implementation plan on air quality last year, and the board rejected those changes soundly.

“The vote was 8-to-1 against us. It was 8-to-1,” Pacenza said. “This is hardly a board that is poised to make Jim Holtkamp’s life a living disaster. It’s a board, frankly, which does a good job—too good of a job, perhaps—of defending and representing Utah’s business interests.”

But when all was said and done, the board voted almost unanimously to table the bill—Sen. Dabakis was the lone nay-vote. But Sen. Davis, SB 164’s sponsor, expressed a willingness to work with his colleagues to improve the bill or the process.

With the bill tabled in committee for now, it’s uncertain what will become of SB 164 this session, though it could still earn the approval of the committee later on.

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