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Audit notes operational problems in Utah’s air quality division

Division lacks centralized database

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Inversion fills the Wasatch Front on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Auditors conducting an agencywide risk assessment of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality said they found so many “operational and environmental issues” within the Division of Air Quality it warranted an additional report.

In an audit released Tuesday by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General and presented before a legislative subcommittee, the division tasked with air pollution reduction and regulations was specifically criticized on three fronts in which auditors said improvements needed to be made.

The audit found:

  • The division lacks a centralized database, which makes verifying compliance rates with polluters difficult.
  • The state’s popular fireplace and wood stove conversion program deserves a second look because it is questionable how effective it has been in reducing residential woodsmoke, especially given the program’s investment by taxpayers.
  • The most polluting oil and gas wells in the Uinta Basin are not subject to devices that control the release of volatile organic compounds, even though oil and gas wells in Utah are responsible for 44% of those compounds across the state. They contribute to the formation of ozone, which is a problem in the basin that may result in stricter federal standards. But overall, the industry contributes 8% of the ozone in the state

The lack of a centralized database led to communication missteps among employees, questions about timeliness of inspections and overall compliance due to lack of data, the audit found.

“As a result, we were limited in our ability to determine the success of the division and thereby the full success of the state’s air quality program,” the audit said. “To be clear, we do not believe that (the division) is substantially deficient in its duties. The information we were able to obtain generally showed compliance in required inspection frequency.“

The auditors said that by using the limited data available, they conducted tests to determine if the division was meeting its regulatory responsibilities, and ultimately concluded that it appeared the division was meeting its compliance goals.

Overall, the lack of a database led to problems with missed inspections, confusion over the status of permits, and miscommunication among the various branches causing issues with enforcement actions and other inefficiencies.

Bryce Bird, division director, said the division generally agrees with the audit’s recommendations and is taking steps to implement changes.

“Such improvements will further our commitment and support our efforts to achieve our mission to safeguard and improve Utah’s air, land and water through balanced regulation.”

Bird noted that the division has initiated discussions among the three branches within the division — compliance, permitting and planning — to improve data collection management and will work with the state technology division to get a cost estimate for a centralized database.

The audit also found problems with the state’s popular fireplace and wood stove conversion program, which incentivizes residents to change from wood to cleaner burning gas or electric appliances.

In the 2019 Utah Legislature, lawmakers approved spending $9 million in grants to target primarily low-income residents who rely on wood as a sole source of heating their home or as a secondary source.

The audit found the division did not specifically target households that burn wood as a sole or supplemental source of heat, nor could it say for certain that grant recipients had even used their old devices because it did not collect information about their woodsmoke burning habits.

“Therefore, it is not known if the program was being utilized by those who frequently burn wood,” the audit said.

According to a survey commissioned by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, only 42% of respondents with wood-burning appliances reported burning wood in the last 12 months.

“That means that it is possible that many grant participants receiving grants of up to $4,000 were not previously contributing to the total emissions from woodsmoke in the first place,” the audit found.

Additionally, the audit questioned the effectiveness of the amount of taxpayer dollars invested in the program given that residential woodsmoke decreased by anywhere from 79% to 93%, depending on the city, between 2007 and 2017.

“This research seems to indicate that less expensive efforts (such as communications, partial bans and federally funded conversion programs) to reduce woodsmoke have been successful,” it said.

The air quality division’s early analysis of the program, the audit noted, found that it will remove 17 tons of pollution over 20 years, with the cost per one ton at $14,435.   

Auditors said the division should conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine if the measured reductions in woodsmoke are worth the high cost of the program. 

Bird countered that the program is being administered in alignment with the legislation passed in 2019, and the cost per ton of emissions being removed through the woodsmoke reduction effort is actually less than many other pollution controls.

The audit also noted the division should work more closely with sister divisions, like that of oil, gas and mining, to ramp up efficiencies in inspections and oversight of oil and gas wells in Utah that are mostly concentrated in the Uinta Basin.

A more concentrated regulatory effort, the audit said, is needed to combat the ozone problem in the basin, in particular in light of the looming reclassification of the area for failing to meet the national ozone pollution limits.

Auditors found regulatory gaps in state law that amplify the release of pollutants that lead to the buildup of ozone, particularly volatile organic compounds.

While higher producing wells and wells in their first year of operation are required to have control devices that eliminate 95% of VOC emissions, others are not.

Auditors said the problem is that of 3,600 wells under division oversight, 2,426 are in the latter category not subject to having those devices, subject to less frequent inspections and able to use a less robust system for detecting leaks. The division, however, does apply controls to those wells that are more stringent than federal requirements.

Bird said discussions have already started on how to boost collaboration with state oil and gas regulators.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said oil and gas wells in Utah are responsible for 44% of the ozone pollution in the state, when the audit said they are actually responsible for 44% of the man-made volatile organic compounds. The Division of Air Quality says oil and gas wells are 8% of the ozone problem.