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Is there a role for Congress to play in the air pollution fight?

Rep. Ben McAdams says Congress could be more proactive

FILE - Congressman-elect Ben McAdams talks about his hopes and expectations as he prepares for his move to Washington D.C. during an interview at the Salt Lake County complex on Monday, Dec. 17, 2018.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Hours after he hosted an informational meeting with a few dozen congressional staffers, Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, said he believes Utah’s delegation and others in the nation’s capital could be more proactive in the wake of regulatory rollbacks of clean air rules.

“Congress needs to take a strong role in working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” McAdams said Tuesday.

McAdams asked experts to present a briefing on data compiled in a couple of national reports released earlier this year, including the American Thoracic Society’s State of the Health and the American Lung Association’s State of the Air.

The data, he said, will prove fruitful in helping to drive decisions.

“It is in the interest of all Utahns to improve our air and to do it in a responsible way. We know it is going to take action at the local level, the state level and the federal level to have an impact.”

McAdams cited the recent decision by the EPA to modify clean car standards to make them less stringent, even in the face of support of the Obama-era rule from a majority of automobile manufacturers who argued against regulations that could bifurcate the industry.

“We are not going to get clean air in Utah unless we improve our fuel efficiency,” he said.

Kevin Cromar said local and state progress in the fight to curb emissions becomes difficult to retain when federal rules are weakened.

”Rolling back cost-effective federal regulations puts an even greater burden on states in trying to improve air quality,” said Cromar, who is director of the air quality program at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management.

“Due to jurisdictional issues, states are left with a much smaller menu of (often more costly) options to make up forfeited air quality gains.”

Cromar was one of the invited speakers at Tuesday’s briefing in Washington, D.C.

McAdams said he also worries about lost progress on the pollution front due to the regulatory rollbacks.

“There’s been incredibly hard work done at the state and local level and it comes at a cost,” he said.

Data by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality shows that despite a 26% population increase from 2002 to 2014, statewide emissions declined by 30% percent, representing a 46% reduction in per capita emissions.

Those achievements could be in jeopardy given the weakening of federal rules, McAdams said.

“Pollution around the country is a challenge, and in Utah we face some really unique challenges,” he said.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said he supports clean car standards that boost greater fuel efficiency.

“I support greater efficiency standards in cars, trucks, and factories to reduce energy consumption and pollution. I also support the utilization of all our energy resources including gas, coal, wind, nuclear, geothermal, hydro, and solar,” he said in a statement released Tuesday.

Both Romney and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, earlier this year released legislation that would authorize the EPA to work with communities in a preventative manner to curb ozone emissions before the pollutant becomes overly problematic.

“Ozone is a serious threat to human health. Under current law, the EPA can only work with local governments when ozone levels have already reached unhealthy levels,” Romney said at the time. “Our bill will authorize the EPA to engage in partnerships with those local communities which are at risk of elevated ozone emissions before those unhealthy levels have been reached. Prevention is less expensive and more conducive to protecting the health of Utahns and all Americans.”

Janice Nolen, the lung association’s national assistant vice president for policy, said Tuesday that progress in the pollution fight is improving, but too many U.S. citizens live in areas that continue to be plagued by unhealthy levels of emissions.

“Although we have improved a lot since the late 1990s, we still have a long way to go.”