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Groups blast air quality plan as new winter pollution season kicks off

In this 2011 file photo, a skier glides by at Snowbird with an inversion blanketing the valley in the background.
In this 2011 file photo, a skier glides by at Snowbird with an inversion blanketing the valley in the background.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Thursday marked the first official day of the winter pollution season, with state air quality regulators advising residents to be mindful of wood burning restrictions that may be imposed periodically until April 1.

Coincidentally, Thursday was also the last day to comment on the state's proposed plan to curb PM2.5, or fine particulate pollution that can build up in the winter, and multiple groups blasted the state's efforts as woefully inadequate.

"This plan is likely to have a greater impact on public health than any other state action for the next several decades, and yet the plan utterly fails to protect Wasatch Front residents," said a joint statement released by Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment and Western Resource Advocates.

The plan has been under review the past 30 days and is likely to be tweaked before its final adoption. The division has to submit the plan to the EPA in December, but air quality regulators have said they do not believe it will achieve pollution reductions sufficient to come into compliance with federal clean air standards.

Throughout the last several months, multiple residents, industry representatives, small business owners, farmers and others have spoken out at a round of public hearings on the plan, which proposes vehicle emission testing in Cache County, tighter fugitive dust controls, new limits on bakery emission and a host of other changes.

Business owners and some residents have complained about the new restrictions that may come into play as prohibitively expensive or overly cumbersome, but advocates say the plan doesn't go far enough.

The Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment and Western Resource Advocates accused the Division of Air Quality of "foot dragging" by delaying the incorporation of certain pollution reduction controls in its plan.

The two groups said the plan could have opted, but did not require, reduced freeway speed limits during the entire winter inversion season, phasing out wood and coal burning in residences, flare gas recovery technology on oil refineries, as well as prohibitions on agricultural burning.

Critics also panned the division for being "industry's advocate" and not the community's health advocate — a position they say is reflected in the plan's key components.

"Utah citizens must demand a better plan," the statement said.

A statement released by Christopher Thomas, executive director of HEAL Utah, acknowledges the work that went into the PM2.5 plan, but still insists it is flawed because it fails to require any new, significant pollution controls for the Wasatch Front's biggest refineries, smelters, factories and other facilities.

"The (plan) as it currently stands envisions a 5 percent reduction from point sources on key pollutants. That low target is obviously insufficient," the statement said, urging that the division require significant polluters to adopt technology which with the lowest achievable emission rates.

Each year, the division launches its no burn day program to engage residents and motorists in ways to reduce pollution that can build up into inversions.

Restrictions are triggered when the fine particle pollution, or PM2.5, reaches unhealthy levels due to vehicle emissions, industry and residential use of wood-burning stoves or fireplaces.

The division issues a "yellow" air day as a precaution, noting that winter pollution levels are creeping toward an unhealthy condition. On those days, residents are asked to voluntarily refrain from wood burning. Reduction of the time behind the wheel is also helpful.

On days when the division issues a "red" alert, wood burning is prohibited in Wasatch Front counties and in Cache County, and residents face citations and fines if the ban is violated. Motorists are advised to limit driving as well.

Cold and an absence of storm activity can combine to create inversions, resulting in dirty, trapped air that leaves asthma sufferers and others with respiratory problems at risk for complications.

Beyond the vulnerable populations such as the very young, the elderly and people with respiratory illnesses, a bevy of national and international studies show air pollution is just plain unhealthy, period, and increased levels are linked to greater incidence of stroke and cardiac events.

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