Environmental Politics, Urban Planning
A Banner Year for Air Quality Bills
Not all was won; but many steps were taken in the direction toward cleaner air for all Utahns.
During the 2018 Legislative Session, I was closely watching proposed “clean air legislation” that included a transportation omnibus bill, additional fines for tampering with diesel engines, rail yard equipment upgrades (see CATALYST February), diesel emissions testing programs for Utah County, and a few other bills that would have an effect on our airshed.
Breathe Utah’s top legislative priority this year was ensuring our state Division of Air Quality (DAQ) was adequately funded—a task that has been shown to be quite cumbersome in sessions past. As Utah strives to improve the air, the population is growing, businesses are more numerous and people need to get where they are going. The DAQ is tasked the research, analysis, modeling, and compliance on which all solutions depend. In order to support business with timely permits and inspections, keep Wasatch Front counties in demonstration of attainment and continue to support our communities’ efforts to improve health and quality of life, the DAQ requires, at a minimum, an allowance of ongoing research funds and the addition of some fulltime staff.
Representatives from business and industry and air quality advocates were successful in working together to secure budget support for the DAQ, which included the ongoing funding for three new fulltime employees, and $500,000 in ongoing research money that will focus on solutions to pollution problems along the Wasatch Front and in the Uinta Basin. The research funding would immediately fund projects to better understand the impacts of wood burning on mandatory no-burn days, the impact of ammonia emissions from diesel vehicles during winter inversions and improved emission inventories and air quality modeling in partnership with the University of Utah. These projects will help the state’s efforts in developing cost-effective, targeted regulations that actually improve air quality, not just look good on paper.
This collaborative effort was really the first of its kind. For the first time, legislators who typically view being helpful as slashing budgets, understood and advocated for increased capacity for a state division that is crucial to any ongoing air quality solutions.
In addition to the DAQ funding, our state lawmakers passed some meaningful air quality legislation.
Getting a grip on diesel emissions
HB 101 Air Quality Emissions Testing Amendments, sponsored by Representative Patrice Arent from Millcreek and Senator Curt Bramble from Provo, passed this year. This compromise bill will require Utah County to implement a three-year pilot program for including diesel passenger cars and trucks in the emissions testing. It also requires the Division of Air Quality to submit a report to the Natural Resources committee on the estimated emissions reduced through the program, yearly.
The local health departments in four non-attainment counties in the state have voluntarily included diesels as a part of their emissions testing programs, but Utah County stopped testing diesels back in 2006.
Diesel exhaust contains pollutants most harmful to public health, including small particulate matter (PM 2.5), and nitrogen oxides (NOx). NOx reacts with other pollutants in the atmosphere and contributes to the formation of PM2.5. Light- and medium-duty diesel vehicles are up to six times more likely to fail emissions testing than comparable gas vehicles. Failing diesel vehicles produce up to four times the direct PM2.5 pollution of compliant diesels, and 21 times the NOx pollution.
This important air quality policy has the potential to eliminate over 170 tons of pollution per year from Utah County, if the pilot program is transitioned into a fully implemented program. We are confident the data from the pilot will solidify the need for a permanent program.
Another very important bill that would have a positive impact on reducing diesel emissions was HB 171 Motor Vehicle Emissions Amendments sponsored by Representative Angela Romero and Senator Luz Escamilla of Salt Lake City. This bill would have increased the fines for those who intentionally tamper with emissions controls in vehicles—specifically, the drivers of those diesel trucks who intentionally blow huge plumes of black smoke for fun. We call this “rolling coal.”
Currently in Utah there is only a $50 fine for the first offense. This bill would increase that to $100. Other states around the country have much steeper penalties for these unhealthy behaviors. New Jersey, for example, will slap you with a $5,000 fine the first time it happens. $50 isn’t much of a deterrent for this obnoxious behavior that has grave consequences for public health and air quality.
Unfortunately, this bill ran out of time at the end, after passing through the first three steps, with only a Senate Floor vote needed for final passage. We are hopeful that it will pass next legislative session.
Learning to drive? Learn about air quality!
HB 331 Air Pollution Mitigation Education Program sponsored by Representative Mike Kennedy of Alpine and Senator Todd Weiler of Woods Cross passed and will require new drivers in the state of Utah to learn about ways to improve air quality and the harmful effects of vehicle emissions. The information will be provided to applicants for a driver license, included in the driver education curriculum of a commercial driver training school, and included in the curriculum of a driver education program in a public school.
Breathe Utah has been working with the Utah State Board of Education and the Driver License Division to develop materials to help turn these directives into rich learning opportunities. This bill will complement these efforts.
SB 136 Transportation Governance Amendments sponsored by Senator Wayne Harper of Taylorsville and Representative Mike Schultz of Hooper, passed after many substitutions and amendments and a long stakeholder process. Overall, this bill creates some great opportunity for expanding transit throughout the state, allowing for a local option sales tax that municipalities can opt into to fund expansion projects.
The troubling portion of this bill was the increase in annual registration fees for certain clean vehicles including electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid models. Breathe Utah and other advocates worked tirelessly on getting these fees reduced to a more reasonable amount and a compromise was struck in the waning hours of the session. The additional fees imposed will phase in over a three-year period, and the fees will go into a fund that will support building electric vehicle infrastructure, hopefully offsetting some of the unintended consequences of prematurely imposing additional fees on clean vehicles. Annual registration fees will increase as follows: Electric models $120, plug-in hybrids $52, and hybrids $20.
Freight switcher failure
HB 211 Freight Switcher Emissions Mitigation that was discussed in last month’s CATALYST article, did not pass and was not funded. But the bill did make it farther than originally expected and generated great discussion amongst lawmakers that something must be done to combat this significant source of NOx pollution. I am committed to continue working on this important issue.
As the bell tolled at midnight on the last day of the session, air quality advocates didn’t get everything we hoped for, but this was a banner session for positive steps in air quality. Next year will be better because of our efforts this year.
Ashley Miller, J.D., is the program and policy director for Breathe Utah. She is a member of the state’s new Air Quality Policy Advisory Board and is also the Salt Lake County Health Department Environmental Quality Advisory Commission.