Utah is struggling to meet air quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, Director of Utah’s Division of Air Quality Bryce Bird said Wednesday during a Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Interim Committee meeting.

A 2015 revision to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, established by the EPA under the Clean Air Act, lowered the federal threshold for ozone concentrations from 75 parts per billion to 70 ppb, designating areas above that level as “nonattainment” areas.

The ozone level in the northern Wasatch Front is sitting at 77 ppb — “well above that standard,” Bird said.

Utah’s nonattainment area, where ozone levels are higher than what the EPA considers to be protective of public health, includes Salt Lake County, Davis County, the western portion of Weber County and the eastern portion of Tooele County.

The EPA has put into place what Bird calls “hammers” that fall on nonattainment areas. “The first hammer that falls is impacting public transportation,” Bird told committee members. The agency can put sanctions on highway funding, preventing federal funds from being used in nonattainment areas. The second “hammer” is the EPA steps in to set up an attainment plan for the state.

To avoid these hammers from falling on Utah, the state’s Department of Air Quality says its working on a state implementation plan to get those ozone levels down to 70 ppb.

“We’re still working for that standard,” Bird told committee members. “But again, (we are) far from it at this point.”

Health impacts

Ground-level ozone forms when precursor pollutants — chemicals like volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides — react with sunlight.

Ozone pollution, which can come from motor vehicles, chemical plants, refineries, gas stations, paint and more, is harmful to human health, as the Deseret News has reported.

Utah-based health studies have found a litany of health issues related to high levels of ozone pollution from asthma and other respiratory diseases to heart diseases and even an increased risk of giving birth prematurely.

The West’s ozone challenges

The West faces particular challenges in meeting the EPA’s standards: Background ozone can drift in from other regions, pushing Western states’ ozone levels above the federal threshold.

“The background levels in the West are much higher than they are in other parts of the country,” Bird said. “But the Intermountain West in particular has higher natural concentrations of ozone and a greater impact from international transport of the precursor emissions to ozone formation.”

Around 80% of ozone emissions in Utah are either naturally occurring or transported to the state.

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This background ozone, Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, chairman of Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Interim Committee, says, makes the federal standards “uncompliable.”

“Everyone in the Salt Lake Valley and across the Wasatch Front could leave and we would still not get to 70 parts per billion,” Sandall stated. “... There are a number of things that we can continue to do, but we will still not be compliant. ... This is a problem. And we’ve got a state agency who’s trying to be compliant with what the federal government will say, but it will do us no good in the end unless the standard comes to a reasonable amount.”

“We do not have to try to comply to an uncompliable standard.“ Sandall continued. “That’s the message that we’ve got to send to the federal government is we can’t do that. There’s no way. So whether we do that through legislation, whether we do that through a lawsuit, whatever we do, we have to be the ones to say no.”

What Utah is doing to meet federal ozone standards

Bird agreed that background ozone makes meeting the EPA’s standards particularly difficult for states in the West, but noted that there are still steps Utah can take to get to the level to avoid sanctions.

“We’ve been dealt a tough hand,” Bird said. “... But there are some things that we could do locally to help make incremental improvement and then meet that statutory mission that we have to improve public health that is being impacted by current levels of air pollution.”

The state has submitted a a State Implementation Plan, or SIP, which includes “a description of how the state will reduce emissions in order to meet the air quality standard,” per the Department of Environmental Quality.

The Division of Air Quality is also looking at implementing short- and long-term rules to lower ozone emissions including rules on small lawn equipment, halogen reduction, metal recycling, composting and more.

A Utah Summer Ozone Study is also the works, Bird noted, the results of which will be available later in the interim or during the Legislative session next year, Bird told the committee.

The division of air quality has plans to attain the EPA standards, Bird emphasized, “but we’re also looking at ways to push back and challenge (those standards) and with the support of the Legislature we’re moving out in that direction.”

Utah recently lost its lawsuit against the EPA over its “Good Neighbor rule,” which regulates air pollution from power plants that flows across state lines.