The clouds of change are upon us

By By Andy Thompson

By Andy Thompson

The Salt Lake Tribune reported last week that the Utah State Legislature has asked the Department of Environmental Quality to examine ways to cut its funding by $550,000.

It is disheartening to know that in the midst of a now three-week-old cloud of poisonous particles swamped over the entire Wasatch Front, the state’s leaders have the gall to consider cutting funds from a state agency that looks for ways to improve the environment.

Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, who sits on the subcommittee that asked the DEQ to look for ways to trim funding, assured that the department would not necessarily lose any funding.

“I do not believe that we will cut funding,” he said. “This was an exercise that we carried out to see what we would have to do if the budget fell on lean times.”

It is nice to know that the Legislature practices such forward thinking. Hopefully they display such vision when addressing the state’s booming population and the consequences of such growth.

God forbid the state does have a down year in revenue and the state’s environmental police officer suffers because of it. The DEQ monitors the state’s air, water and hazardous waste (or, as others have coined it: Energy Solutions). The DEQ also enacts laws aimed to protect Utah’s environment, enforces existing environmental regulations and teaches environmentally healthy practices.

Already under-funded–the state cut $6.5 million from the agency between 2002 and 2004–a weakened DEQ cannot afford any more setbacks.

“Budget cuts are not appropriate or needed at this time,” said DEQ Executive Director Dianne Nielson. “Any cuts would be detrimental.”

Yet Utah’s legislators question the importance of some of the agency’s funding.

“Our responsibility is to ensure taxpayer money is spent in the most efficient way,” said the subcommittee co-chairman, Rep. Wayne Harper, R-Ogden. “The program must identify the most important things and the least important things.”

The most important thing, it would seem, is the health of Harper’s constituents, both in his West Jordan district and throughout Utah.

Daycare facilities and schools throughout the valley are restricting the time that children spend outside because of the unhealthy atmosphere. There has also been an escalation of students missing school this January because of flu-like and asthma-like symptoms.

“I’ve got to believe that the air is contributing to the increased absences,” said Wasatch Elementary Principal Julie Miller. “It’s not getting any better in this valley, so we need some good ideas.”

Take a straw poll in downtown Salt Lake City and you will hear a loud aversion (do I dare?) to the inversion, with the word “disgusting” most commonly used to describe the air. If SLC were a restaurant, it wouldn’t pass health inspections. Even if the city were a private club, it would not be granted a license because of all the smoke in the air.

Yet, as a public, we do little to improve the air quality. The discipline we lack cannot be echoed by our elected officials in order to pinch a few pennies in case of a rainy day. It is the government’s responsibility to save its citizens from sucking down dangerous particulate matter in conditions deemed federally unhealthy.

Though it appears unlikely, Harper maintains that a DEQ funding cut is not out of the question and has “yet to be determined.”

The State Legislature must have a strong faith in evolution to hope that our children develop lungs that need toxic emissions to breathe–a cocktail of O3 (ozone), CO2 (carbon dioxide) and SO2 (sulfur dioxide) that we can sell by the case. Hopefully, there are backroom scientists off on some tobacco farm in Carolina working on such a mutant gene as we speak. Unfortunately, there is no clear evidence of such innovation on the horizon, though it would create a lock-hold industry for burgeoning investors.

All we can hope for is that the voice of environmentally minded officials–like Rep. Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, who called for an increase in the DEQ budget to investigate ways that the state can meet federal air-quality mandates–are heard on Capitol Hill.