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EPA'S CLEAN AIR FORMULA SHOULD VANISH INTO THIN AIR

Weird science. That's what the Environmental Protection Agency seems to be using to color the skies gray over Utah.

Because the state's most populous area sits about 4,500 feet above sea level, EPA officials multiply the actual number of fine particulates in Utah's air by 15 percent when measuring pollution. Apparently, some bureaucrat decided that was the correct formula to compensate for thinner air in the Beehive State. As the theory goes, people here breathe about 15 percent more oxygen than the people in low-lying states.Someone ought to check how thin the air is in Washington, D.C.

This is a formula that flies in the face of conventional science, and it appears to be little more than an arbitrary, bureaucratic guess. Studies at the University of Utah and the Desert Research Institute in Reno show people at higher altitudes don't breathe more particulates than anyone else. In fact, they tend to breathe about the same amount as people at sea level. A fine particulate in Utah, then, should count the same as a fine particulate in Los Angeles.

Of course, state officials have pointed this out to the EPA. They did so repeatedly, as a matter of fact, during the 1970s and '80s. But the bureaucrats remained unconvinced.

In the meantime, Salt Lake and Davis counties are fighting to prove to the EPA that they have met standards for the percentage of ozone in the air. These counties haven't exceeded the federal standard in years, yet the EPA doggedly insists on categorizing them as "non-attainment" areas because of violations in the '70s and '80s.

The penalty for non-attainment? The counties would have to find ways to reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds - by 15 percent.

There's that magic number again.

Perhaps amid their many bureaucratic duties, EPA officials are wondering why the public is so upset with them and why Congress wants to drastically curtail their budget and their powers. To people in states like Utah, the answer is clear. Everyone wants clean air, but the EPA's rigid and sometimes irrational positions have turned the public's focus away from clean air and toward attacking bureaucratic ineptness.

The state's Air Quality Division is preparing another argument in the fine-particulate battle. Gov. Leavitt is expected to forward the document to the EPA.

Timing is important. Right now, the EPA is working on updating its pollution standards. Let's hope the threat of an angry Congress and American public can persuade officials to listen to reason and good science for a change.