Good news: Utah’s air quality is improving!

By Ashley Miller

Caveat: It’s an ongoing process

In 2006, the EPA tightened the health standard for PM2.5 pollution—the fine particulate matter pollution that builds during winter inversions and causes serious health effects—lowering acceptable levels from 65 to 35 micrograms per cubic meter. When a location has air pollution that exceeds that standard, the EPA classifies the area as “nonattainment.” In November 2009, the EPA designated three geographic areas of Utah as nonattainment for PM2.5 pollution: Provo, Salt Lake (including Davis, and parts of Weber, Box Elder, and Tooele Counties), and Logan (including Franklin County, Idaho). The EPA required the state to develop a plan specific to each area in order to reduce pollution to levels below the standard. This is called a State Implementation Plan, or SIP for short.

When a state can prove a nonattainment area has three consecutive years of data showing the pollution standard has been maintained, the EPA will give the area a Clean Data Determination. Last October, the Logan area was the first to achieve a clean air rating from the EPA (see CATALYST, November 2018).

This year Provo and the Salt Lake areas have caught up. In April, the EPA approved the proposal for the Provo Clean Data Determination, and on June 5, the EPA proposed the same for Salt Lake. This proposal is based on air quality monitoring data looking at 2016, 2017, and 2018, which shows the Salt Lake area has maintained the 2006 standard.

And this isn’t a case of the current administration changing the standard. New rules and regulations passed by the state’s Air Quality Board and the Legislature, as well as Utahns changing behaviors and becoming more aware of individual impacts on air quality, have led to these areas meeting the PM2.5 standard.

Weather has also been a contributing factor. Warmer, milder winters have helped over the last three years, resulting in fewer red air days. We still have unique challenges that result in very visible deteriorated air quality, but the good news is the data shows we continue to improve.

The State’s plan for improved air quality

It has been a long and winding road to improved air quality. Since 2009, the Division of Air Quality has been hard at work developing plans to improve the air. Due to several factors, some out of our control like geography and weather, it has been nothing short of a hard task. Each time a deadline to meet the standard passes, areas of Utah “upgrade” to a more stringent classification.  In 2017, The EPA reclassified the Provo and Salt Lake areas to “serious” nonattainment due to the length of time we have been out of compliance with the standard (over a decade, in fact). This new classification put into place a 2019 deadline to meet the standard.

Under this serious designation, the Division of Air Quality had to reevaluate emissions from all sources. Point sources (large stationary industrial sources like the refineries and Kennecott’s copper mine) were reviewed to ensure all pollution controls met the “best available” standard, and were required to make costly upgrades for outdated controls. The Division of Air Quality also reevaluated the existing area source rules to ensure they also met the “best available” requirements.

Because technology changes over time, some controls on these large sources could, and arguably should, be improved. An example is better controls for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) on certain equipment at refineries.

Other emissions-reducing programs will continue to support these areas maintaining the standard. In December 2017, the EPA awarded Utah over $9.5 million to reduce pollution from wood stoves. This program was crafted to address wood burning in the nonattainment areas, especially in the Logan area, where wood burning remains a significant source of PM pollution. Wood smoke is also a major source of air pollution, exacerbating inversions in the Salt Lake Valley. This past legislative session, the legislature appropriated about $9 million to bolster the woodstove conversion program.

Improved technology in appliances, like water heaters, has led to stronger rules for area sources (pollution from homes, buildings and small businesses). New water heaters, called Ultra Low NOx, are 75% cleaner than Low NOx models. A new rule requires all water heaters sold and installed in Utah to be Ultra Low NOx. This rule, which was put into place last July, will take several years to reach full potential, as water heaters continue to be replaced over time by the cleaner models. Reducing NOx (nitrogen oxide) is an important strategy for air quality since NOx leads to the formation of both wintertime particulate pollution and summertime ozone pollution.

New requirements at the federal level will also continue to improve Utah’s air as they phase in over time. For vehicles, the new Tier 3 standard means new cars are about 80% cleaner than the previous Tier 2 standard due to improved emissions controls like catalytic converters. And Tier 3 gasoline also improves tailpipe emissions, the largest source of air pollution in Utah, by reducing the sulfur content of the fuel from 30ppm down to 10. This reduces the amount of sulfur released into the atmosphere and also improves catalytic converter function, making cars simply run cleaner (see CATALYST, November 2017). These are all examples of a suite of emissions reducing strategies that will lead to even cleaner air over time.

Critics of the new Clean Data Determinations are fearful that such a ruling means Utah will stop working on the problem. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such a determination means that the state must show that the standard can be maintained over a period of upwards of 20 years before the EPA will re-designate an area to attainment status. And because Utah is plagued with unique challenges that cannot be overcome, like our mountainous geography and inevitable population growth, Utahns must continue to work that much harder to maintain the standard.

Sulfur dioxide

A prime example of just how long it can take to be reclassified as attainment for a nonattainment area is the Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) SIP. SO2 is one of the pollutants that leads to the formation of particulate matter pollution and can cause an array of respiratory illnesses.

With the closure of the last remaining coal-fired power plant at Kennecott announced this past spring, the state can finally submit a long-awaited request for re-designation.

In 1978, Cedar City and an area encompassing Salt Lake and Tooele counties failed to meet the 1971 SO2 standard. EPA approved the State’s plan for Cedar City in 1980, but disapproved the strategy for the Salt Lake/Tooele nonattainment area. The State submitted a SIP revision in 1981, which was approved contingent upon the resolution of certain issues in 1985. A land ownership dispute delayed final approval even further.

Thanks to major improvements and investments in sulfur reductions at industrial sources like Utah’s oil refineries and Kennecott’s copper smelter, there hasn’t been a violation of the SO2 standard in the Salt Lake/Tooele SO2 nonattainment area since 1981.

Fast forward to today, over 30 years later. Kennecott historically operated four coal-fired broilers for power generation at its Utah Power Plant in Magna. Units 1-3 were permanently shut down in 2016, but Unit 4 remained operational during summer months. The coal-fired units were not allowed to operate for air quality reasons from November 1 through March 1 each year. The shutdown of Unit 4 will remove the largest source of SO2 in Salt Lake County.

Cleaner air is possible, when we work together.

The Clean Data Determinations are proof that improving air quality in Utah is possible, and even more proof that it requires a collaborative approach. And individuals have a role to play that will reap clean air rewards. The next big issue the state will continue to work on is ozone. Ozone plagues certain areas of Utah as the temperatures rise and the sun shines bright.

This reminds us all that we each have a role to play as the summer months heat up. Remember that it’s better to use lawn and garden equipment that is either human-powered or electric, rather than gas-powered. If you must use gas-powered, do it in the evening when the sun is going down. Drive less by walking, riding, taking transit, carpooling, trip chaining. And as always, be idle free.

Ashley Miller, J.D., is the policy director for Breathe Utah. She is the vice-chair of Utah’s Air Quality

Policy Advisory Board and on the Salt Lake County Health Department Environmental Quality Advisory Commission.

This article was originally published on June 30, 2019.