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Guest opinion: Our elected leaders should support one of Utah’s most effective clean air programs

The sun rises over the smog-filled Salt Lake Valley on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.
The sun rises over the smog-filled Salt Lake Valley on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Any resident of our state recognizes that Utah’s air quality challenges are unique and can be problematic. We’re one of a handful of places that regularly deals with winter inversions — times when high pressures trap particulate pollution in valleys and cities, sometimes making it unhealthy to breathe. Paired with our hot summers that create ozone, it’s no surprise that the American Lung Association consistently gives Utah an “F” grade when it comes to air quality.

Cleaning up air like ours is the goal of the Diesel Emission Reduction Act, one of the most effective air quality improvement programs managed by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. When Congress returns in September, our elected leaders in Washington, D.C., will take a vote to fund the program. We strongly encourage Sen. Mike Lee and Sen. Mitt Romney to support this appropriation so it can fund the air quality improvements we need back here in Utah.

DERA’s grants help communities clean up their air by replacing older trucks, buses and equipment with newer, cleaner technologies — including new-generation diesel engines. Replacing just one of these heavy-duty vehicles with newer technologies can eliminate tons of emissions. It’s also one of only a few government programs to enjoy bipartisan support, along with a long list of supporters from environmental and health advocates, as well as industry.

Just how effective is this program? Since DERA’s funding began in 2008, more than 67,000 vehicles and engines have been upgraded or replaced, delivering $19 billion in direct health benefits. This includes eliminating 427,700 tons of nitrogen oxides, 15,490 tons of particulate matter and 5.1 million tons of carbon dioxide. That equates to taking 60,894 tanker trucks off the road or not driving 11.2 billion miles in a passenger car.

DERA supplies enough funding to incentivize vehicle and equipment owners — including school districts and county fleet managers — to make a smart investment with their own resources. As a result, every $1 in public funds appropriated through the DERA program is leveraged with an additional $3 in nonfederal funds, generating between $11 and $30 in benefits to the public, and more than $2 in fuel savings.

Utah in particular has been a winner under DERA, receiving $10 million in grants since the program began. Most recently, Utah won $2.3 million to replace 83 old heavy-duty trucks, and nine Utah school districts across the state received funding to replace old school buses with the latest near-zero emissions technology. With talk of increased construction, manufacturing and truck traffic along the Wasatch Front, the DERA program could supplement incentives developed locally that encourage cleaner operations and fewer emissions.

So much more could be done through DERA — both here and across the nation — if the program continues to be funded. In Utah alone, 68 percent of our school buses don’t meet the latest near-zero emission tailpipe standards set by U.S. EPA. Half of all commercial vehicles registered in Utah user older, heavier-emitting technology. Utah is also home to large rail yards, and much of that equipment is powered by even larger, older engines, many of which may not have any emission controls. All of these are precisely the types of projects funded through the DERA program.

The Diesel Emission Reduction Act may be one of the most effective tools to generate immediate term air quality and health benefits across Utah — but these benefits cannot be achieved without funding from a variety of sources. We encourage our elected leaders in Washington to take action, so those of us back here in Utah can breathe a little easier.