Students interested in breathable Utah air should support HB 121

Capitol Hill was crawling with sign-wielding, mask-wearing, clean-air activists on Saturday. The hill was charged with enthusiastic support for a phalanx of proposed clean air bills that the legislature will consider over the course of the 2015 session. Rep. Patrice Arent (D-Utah) was proud to announce that 17 new, bipartisan bills addressing air quality were introduced this year. The refreshing array of proposals include bills that would provide schools with cleaner, more energy efficient buses, fund more research regarding the causes and consequences of polluted air, reinvigorate state incentive programs for purchasing cleaner vehicles and expand the mass transit network. However, the most important piece of proposed clean air legislation for 2015 would simply allow Utah to pass air pollution laws that are stricter than the current EPA standards.

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Rep. Becky Edwards (R-Utah), who also spoke at the rally, has proposed HB 121, titled “Air Quality Revisions.” Edwards’ proposal addresses a very odd law on Utah’s books, which states that “no rule which the [Utah Department of Air Quality] makes … may be more stringent than federal regulations.” This law fails to recognize Utah’s unique topography and the consequent need for state specific air pollution controls. Cities along the Wasatch Front, where pollutants pile up in wind-sheltered valleys, require different air quality regulations than cities along the East Coast for instance, where the air is naturally circulated by coastal ocean breezes. HB 121 would modify the existing code to allow for the passage of stricter air quality standards, so long as “the more stringent rule will provide essential added protections to public health or the environment.”

Edwards’ proposal seems like a no-brainer. After all, Salt Lake City, Clearfield and Ogden consistently rank among the top 10 most polluted cities by short term particulate matter in the country, according to the American Lung Association. Yet even with our notorious inversions, Utah is technically in compliance with the EPA’s annual particulate standards. If Utah fails to eliminate its counter-intuitive, “can’t be stricter” law, the state will be chained down by minimum quality federal standards, and Utah’s citizens will be condemned to breathe perennially sub-par air.

Edwards’ argument for HB 121 would seem to appeal to the ideology of Utah’s Republican-dominated legislature. According to Edwards, “Basically, this [bill] allows Utah to have local control for determining our local needs. It’s just another example of what we hear a lot in the legislature, that Utah can do it best. I think that’s true.”

However, HB 121 mirrors a proposed bill that floundered during last year’s legislative session, and it will undoubtedly face strong opposition again this year. Similar bills have been met with fierce resistance from industry leaders, specifically the Utah Petroleum association, who claim that “changes in the air quality laws could spell disaster for industry and businesses within the state.” That seems like a pretty bold, blatantly exaggerated claim to me. If clean air spells disaster for Utah’s industry and businesses, then our economy must be on some seriously shaky ground. It implies that the profits of Utah businesses are dependent upon their ability to pump pollutants into the air. To my mind, that indicates there is an even greater need to reshape our regulatory structure and break free from the current system, which seems to reward toxin-spewing industries and businesses.

If laws that promote clean, breathable air in our pollution-prone valleys are “disastrous” for business interests, I think we should re-evaluate how we do business in this state rather than abandoning all hope for a safe atmosphere. By allowing big businesses to trash our atmosphere, we are essentially subsidizing their profitable pollution because individuals and families ultimately have to pick up the tab for the health and environmental costs associated with foul air. If you are sick of subsidizing big pollution, then I would urge you to shoot an email to your local legislator, voicing your support for HB 121.

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