Let’s start with the premise that just about everyone in Utah wants clean air.
Something about taking a breath, the most fundamental of human needs, erases the conservative impulse to avoid regulations from Washington. And we’ve all lived through those days when the air here is so dense and heavy we have to wipe it from our windshields before heading to work.
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That’s why, in this unique part of the red-state universe, Gov. Gary Herbert can boldly speak in favor of tougher emissions and fuel standards without fear of political retribution, even though Washington often gets used here as an epithet in casual sentences.
So, if we start with that premise, maybe it will be easier to get Washington to go from there and work backwards. Maybe then some of the other rules it imposes can keep us from sprinkling sentences about the capital with other colorful adjectives.
Right now a fight is looming over the EPA’s new ozone standards, which consider anything over 70 parts per billion a violation. This new standard replaces the old 75ppb standard, which was implemented late last year. Environmentalists think the new standard is too high, and they may be right. I’m no scientist, but it makes sense that the cleaner the air, the better our health.
The trouble is, just lowering the standards doesn’t explain what’s happening in San Juan County.
Only 15,000 people live there, give or take some babies that were born or funerals that took place since the last time people counted. The county is, as a recent Deseret News story noted, about the size of New Jersey, which has a population of about 9 million, give or take. And yet the county often violates the ozone standard.
The EPA says counties in violation can’t attract any new industries without reducing emissions elsewhere. This means San Juan County has no way of attracting any industry, because it doesn’t have any existing ones to create offsets.
So, what’s going on?
A lot of things, Alan Matheson, the executive director of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, told me. Some environmental factors create ozone naturally. Also, the air in Utah doesn’t just spontaneously generate. It blows in from elsewhere.
Matheson said state air monitors along Utah’s western borders sometimes record ozone levels of 60ppb in the stuff blowing in. That gives San Juan, and some other Utah counties, precious little room to maneuver.
Two years ago, a team of scholars based in China, the United States and Britain published a paper that found dirty air from China’s export industries can reach the United States within days, and that it can contribute to pollution levels in Western states.
A report on the study in the New York Times said this wind-blown pollution leads to a slight increase in ozone levels. China isn’t the only nation whose wind blows in, however.
As a well-known writer once said, we all talk about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it. Maybe if Donald Trump is elected, the U.S. could build a wall to keep Chinese pollution where it belongs.
But, of course, much of that pollution is created because of U.S. demand for cheap imported goods.
Utah has joined in support of a lawsuit brought by Arizona and four other states against the new EPA standards. For his part, Matheson wants to be clear that his concerns should not be interpreted as turning a blind eye to air pollution.
“Everything from health to the beauty of the area to families and children are affected by how clean the air is,” he said, noting there is much the Wasatch Front, the Uintah Basin and other places in the state can do to improve things.
But pollution is not always an isolated event, even though Washington treats it as such. We need a law that takes a more holistic approach to the problem. We need more studies to determine all the factors that pollute the air. We probably should bring other nations to the table, as well.
My guess is Utahns would support such an effort. But the way things are in Washington, don’t hold your breath.