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Got air pollution? The 13-year-battle the Wasatch Front might be starting to win

Proposal to lose nonattainment designation is 'huge news,' official says

Dr. Lara Hardman, Ethan Ellis, Jake Hanson and Eric Stonehill attend the Utah “Clean Air, No Excuses” at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014. Hardman is a lung physician and sent two of her asthmatic patients to the emergency room las
Dr. Lara Hardman, Ethan Ellis, Jake Hanson and Eric Stonehill attend the Utah “Clean Air, No Excuses” at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014. Hardman is a lung physician and sent two of her asthmatic patients to the emergency room last week.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday it is proposing to remove the Salt Lake metro region from its nonattainment designation for violating 24-hour pollution standards for PM2.5 — a milestone sought for 13 years.

If the Salt Lake region — which includes Davis and Salt Lake counties and portions of Weber, Box Elder and Tooele counties — meets attainment for the federal Clean Air Act standard, it will be the first time it's been in compliance since 2006, when the threshold was revised.

"This is huge news," said Thom Carter, executive director of UCAIR, a statewide clean air partnership.

"There is a lot of nuance to the air quality along the Wasatch Front," he said. "But what we have seen is the hard work of the business community, the regulators and our citizen base over the years, and we are making signficant process. Because the citizens took an active role, we are now harvesting the fruits of all that labor."

The EPA published its proposal of a "clean data determination" in the Federal Register, which kicks off a 60-day comment period.

Its proposed rule is based on quality controlled and certified ambient air monitoring data for 2016-2018 that the federal agency says shows the region is meeting the 24-hour standard for PM2.5, or fine particulate matter that is 3 percent the diameter of a human hair.

Such fine particles enter the lungs and aggravate existing respiratory problems such as asthma, cause prematuredeathand are linked to increased incidences of cardiopulmonary disease, stroke and early onset dementia.

Utah's Wasatch Front is notorious for its murky and often prolonged wintertime inversions, which trap vulnerable people indoors and lead to health and travel advisories from state and local agencies.

For years, advocacy organizations staged rallies at the state Capitol urging solutions, and lawmakers doled out millions for research and other pollution-busting strategies.

In 2015, Utah residents ranked air pollution as the No. 1 threat to the state's quality of life.

Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said the EPA proposal is out for comment, those comments will be reviewed and then the federal agency will make the determination.

Over the last decade, amid the dozens of new laws and 30 new regulations, emissions dropped about 35 to 40 percent even as the Wasatch Front's population grew by 35 percent.

In fact, Utah remains the fastest-growing state in the nation due to its high fertility rate and its pollution troubles are a symptom of tailpipes, a concentration of 85 percent of the population on a narrow strip of land and mountains that hem in winds that could push emissions away.

The Salt Lake region, too, is No. 1 in the country for freight traffic, according to state transportation planners, and is a hub for moving goods all over the West.

If the EPA approves the determination, Bird said that means his division will begin preparing maintenance plans to continue to adhere to the air pollution standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter in the years to come.

"The controls that we relied on to demonstrate attainment we will rely on in the future to maintain the standard going forward," he said.

Bird said the proposal and any subsequent determination by the EPA does not mean the Wasatch Front will no longer have its struggles with air quality and have bad air days.

"Even meeting the standard you can still have a number of days with unhealthy air quality for certain groups," he said.

Dr. Scott Williams, executive director of HEAL Utah, an advocacy group, said he was curious at the methodology used by EPA for its proposed determination, because based on his data, the area violated the standard too many times.

"We need more information than we have right now to understand why they have to come to this conclusion," he said. "That is not to say we haven't made progress."

Williams acknowledged the $29 million in spending by the 2019 Utah Legislature to improve air quality and some of the actions taken by the Utah Division of Air Quality.

"I think they are doing a good job and I give them credit for that," he said, but he noted more should be done as in California.

"Salt Lake has a unique problem because of our geography and our weather," he said. "We can't just be doing what everyone else is doing, otherwise we are just playing catch-up."

Utah County met the clean data determination and Cache Valley's air pollution problem was deemed under the threshold in November of 2018.