Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, wants to make sure states are not punished by federal regulators if a neighboring state’s wildfire creates unhealthy air pollution or the fire is happening on land owned by the federal government.  

The legislation provides automatic waivers for air quality monitoring data that is directly due to catastrophic wildfires, ensuring Utah is not punished for emissions outside its control, and that are often on federal lands.

 “Western states are disproportionally effected by wildfires, skewing data that comes from air quality monitors and leading to undue penalties from the federal government,” said Curtis after unveiling the measure. “Utah experiences this firsthand and this legislation will remove the bureaucratic red tape to ensure we can focus on recovery and rebuilding, not EPA waivers and legal jargon.”

Pollution in the West: ‘You could travel a hundred miles and not find air quality that is any better’
Western wildfire smoke threatens air quality, sends pollution off the charts in northern Utah

When states experience catastrophic or controlled fire, they are often in nonattainment for EPA reporting which comes with potential penalties. Currently they qualify for a waiver, but the timeline to process this request overtakes the processing time and the states have to report numbers consistent with nonattainment before agencies are able finalize the waiver, Curtis said. The bill will provide automatic waivers for any state that does a preventative controlled burn or is impacted by catastrophic wildfire that would put them in the nonattainment category.

At one point in the summer of 2020, the Wasatch Front had the worst air quality in the world, driven by tremendous spikes in PM2.5, or fine particulate pollution, typically associated with wintertime temperature inversions.

An estimated 43 million people in the West were suffering from the ill-effects of wildfires.

One study funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and led by Washington State University that came out the following year emphasized that gains made under the Clean Air Act over the last 50 years or so are being undercut by wildfires due to their rampant nature and high intensity.

It showed that wildfire smoke, which accelerates the formation of ozone, contributed up to 50% of PM2.5 in recent years.

Those tiny particles of PM2.5 (a human hair is 70 times larger) are inhaled into the lungs where they cause damage, particularly to vulnerable populations such as the very young, the elderly or those with compromised respiratory systems.

The study was the first research to map the extent of the fine particulate matter extremes in the West as a whole. Previous studies concentrated on urban areas or looked at the East Coast of the United States.

New York City and parts of the Midwest were also slammed with bad air last year due to hundreds of wildfires burning in Canada. Like the Wasatch Front, New York City for a brief time held the unwelcome moniker of having the worst air quality in the world.