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Dirty-air rule targets Utah dust

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To most people, dust is an inevitable part of life, the very reason furniture polishes were invented.

But to the Utah Division of Air Quality, the dust in the air along the Wasatch Front has become a serious air-quality problem, enough so that the division has stepped up its efforts to address dust as an official form of air pollution."Fugitive dust has been the source of most of our complaints for the last year or more," said division director Ursula Trueman. "When the dust gets ground into smaller particles, it can lodge in the lungs and cause respiratory problems."

That is why the division is now reviewing public comment on a proposed rule that will require landowners to prevent dust from leaving their property. Failure to do so will subject the owner of the property to civil penalties up to $10,000 a day for violations.

The way the rule is written, it would apply to anyone with one-quarter acre or more of exposed land in Utah, Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties, all of which are struggling to meet federal Clean Air Act standards.

In particular, the rule will apply to large dust-producers such as gravel pits and construction projects. But it will also apply to private property owners. Homebuilders will have to comply. So will crews working on I-15.

"The I-15 people have done a great job of controlling dust. We just aren't seeing a lot of blowing dust there," Trueman said, adding that dust control was a condition of the I-15 contract.

The Utah Transit Authority requires that each of its light-rail construction contractors have a dust mitigation plan, which generally consists of using a water truck or hoses to keep the dust down.

The agency monitors the contractors to make sure they're doing all they can to keep dust in check, said UTA environmental compliance officer Grantley Martelly.

UTA received numerous complaints about dust this spring from Main Street businesses before meeting with its downtown light rail contractor and stressing that dust must be controlled. In the six weeks since, the complaints have subsided, Martelly said.

The new provision will affect UTA in one very significant way, Martelly said. Trucks no longer will be allowed to exit construction sites leaving behind a trail of mud and dirt on the street. Those trucks will have to be hosed off or cleaned in some way.

"You can lay a gravel bed for the last 25 or 50 feet of the site so that the gravel works as a brush and takes off the dirt or mud as the truck leaves the site," Martelly said. "That's the biggest change for construction people." But what about Average Joe citizen who is sitting on a building lot in anticipation of building a house there some day? Would he have to comply with the dust control standards?

"Yes, it would apply," Trueman said. "But our intent is more to focus on bigger problems from larger industrial sources."

Not that the division wouldn't investigate complaints involving private property and building lots. But Trueman said the division intends to work with property owners, not to issue violations.

Public response to the proposed rule has been mixed. Many companies have complained about the rigid mandates, particularly when they could be interpreted to apply to something beyond their control, like big windstorms.

"We are taking all concerns seriously," Trueman said. "Whatever the remedy, we want it to be cost-effective and protective of public health."

The division will likely rewrite the rule to be more accommodating to the concerns raised about the mandatory language. If that is the case, the revised rule will go back to the Air Quality Board for further review and then another public hearing and public comment period.

"We have to look at what is reasonable," Trueman said. The earliest a revised rule could be adopted would be December.

It is no secret Utah's dust problem is a direct result of the state's booming economy. Roads are being constructed at a feverish pace, and new buildings and subdivisions are sprouting like mushrooms.

All of those activities generate dust, and the cumulative effect of so much construction is a dust problem the likes of which the state has not seen before. In fact, much of the dirty brown air visible along the Wasatch Front is garden-variety dust.

The problem is aggravated when the dust settles onto roads and is ground up by vehicles into finer particles. When those particles become airborne, they are more easily inhaled and become lodged in the lungs.

Extending the definition of air pollution to dust is not new. Arizona, California, Nevada and Texas have implemented similar measures to control dust.

The proposed rule reflects federal standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency regarding "particulate matter." Trueman said the Utah rule is just one more measure to further bring the state into compliance with the Clean Air Act.

Currently, the EPA has classified the four Utah counties as not in compliance with the law. However, the counties have not exceeded federal standards for some time and the state has asked that EPA revoke its non-attainment status.