Utah State of the Environment

By Amy Brunvand

Utah Legislature 2019 General Session, January 28-March 14

Each year the Utah Legislature considers various laws that affect clean air, clean water, public lands, wildlife and other environmental concerns. Surprisingly, legislators often don’t know much about the bills they vote on. People like you need to help them learn.

Sign up for email legislative alerts from groups you support! They’ll help you track environmental legislation and tell the good bills from the bad. Groups like HEAL Utah and the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club Citizen offer training for citizen lobbyists.

You can be sure that Utah legislators will hear from industry lobbyists. Make sure they hear from you as well! Here are some useful links:

HEAL Utah Bill Tracker

Citizen Lobbying with HEAL Utah

Sierra Club, Political Committee of the Utah Chapter

DEQ Environmental Bill Tracker

Utah Legislature (click on My Legislators to find out who represents you).


Utah State of the Environment 2018

In January, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) released its annual State of the Environment Report. The report details environmental permitting, enforcement and re­medi­ation for water quality, air quality, radioactive waste and cleanup of spills and industrial brownfields.

In the past year, harmful algae blooms (a.k.a. nutrient pollution) affected 25 Utah waterbodies, posing a significant threat to Utah’s quality of life. DEQ has also been working on water quality standards for Great Salt Lake wetlands which are threatened by upstream water development, in­­vasive species (especially phragmites, a large perennial grass), nutrient pollution and land use changes.

The frequency of oil and chemical spills in Utah is increasing.

The Logan PM2.5 Nonattainment Area came into compliance with federal air quality standards.

An Air Quality Research Road­map (AIR2) sets goals and priorities to address pollution control strategies in northern Utah. Urban growth makes human impacts on air quality more pronounced so that the daily choices of individuals matter more.

Wildfires and dust events were not considered “reasonably controllable” to attain federal air quality standards.

Sensors installed on TRAX light-rail trains monitored air quality and inversions.

Although federal law prevents Utah from establishing its own fuel standards, DEQ has been working with local refineries to encourage production of low-sulfur Tier 3 gasoline that could significantly improve Utah’s air.

Brownfield cleanup in Salt Lake City will allow the Centro Civico Mexicano to build an affordable senior housing project. Removal of contaminated soil enabled transit-oriented development of the Alta Gateway property. Two Utah Superfund Sites (Eureka Mills in the Tintic Mining District and Davenport & Flagstaff Smelters in Sandy) were de-listed thanks to successful cleanup.

Disgraced Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt (resigned July 6, 2018 due to ethics scandals) undermined enforcement of federal regional haze rules in Utah.

DEQ also issued a controversial operating permit for the White Mesa Uranium Mill built in 1979 three miles from a Ute Mountain Ute tribal community. The permit seems intended to facilitate revival of uranium mining within the reduced boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. The mill is currently under a “Corrective Action” plan due to groundwater contamination.

2018 State of the Environment Report

 Superfund Sites in Region 8


Dust is melting Utah’s snow

Researchers at the University of Utah found that declining water in the Great Salt Lake causes snow to melt earlier in the Wasatch Mountains. Deposits of dark-colored dust absorb heat and reduce the “albedo” (reflected radiation) of snow.

Researchers monitored a single dust storm in 2017 to verify the origin of dust from the exposed lake bed. Geography professor McKenzine Skiles, lead author of the study, says, “What’s important about the Great Salt Lake is that there are no water rights, no policy to maintain lake levels. As the lake declines, dust events are projected to become more frequent.”


Coal plants uneconomic

A 2018 report from the Sierra Club found that coal-fired power plants in Utah cost more to operate than if they were using wind or solar energy.

Unexpectedly, Pacificorp (the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power) agrees. For years, PacifiCorp refused Sierra Club requests for financial data on aging coal-fired plants. Now, a 2019 resource plan from PacifiCorp says that 13 of 22 coal-fired power plants are uneconomic and that retiring them by 2022 would produce a net saving since natural gas and renewable energy have become cheaper to produce.

In 2016, Utah legislators eliminated a tax credit for electric vehicles, claiming that pollution from coal-generated electricity undid any air-quality advantages of electric cars. As environmentalists pointed out, the sources of electricity can change.

Environmental impacts of the government shutdown

Environmental stewardship suffered during the partial government shutdown that began on December 22, 2018 over the refusal of the U.S. Congress to fund a border wall.

Furloughed employees from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were not able to carry out inspections for pollution compliance. Government science projects were interrupted, leaving a gap in data that could undermine many studies.

Nonetheless, the oil and gas industry continued with business as usual after the Trump administration declared energy production “essential.”

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) continued to issue federal lands drilling permits despite being unable to conduct public environmental scoping as required by law.

Before Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was fired in January 2019, he issued a “National Park Service Contingency Plan” in anticipation of a “lapse in appropriations.” Furloughed park employees were given just four hours to shut down visitor services and specifically forbidden to use ongoing visitation as a reason to justify staffing. Nonetheless, privatized concessions and guides were allowed to keep operating.

In Utah, local government and citizen groups struggled to manage problems caused by the shutdown. In the National Forest Salt Lake Ranger District, Salt Lake City Public Utilities maintained public restrooms and removed trash in the Salt Lake Valley watershed. The State of Utah contributed funds to keep some of Utah’s national parks open with basic services like restrooms and trash collection. The Canyonlands Natural History Association donated funds to open visitor centers at Arches and Canyonlands Island in the Sky District. However, there were no government funds to plow the roads after snowstorms in December.

The federal government never reimbursed the State of Utah for money contributed to mitigate the federal shutdown over the Affordable Care Act in 2013.

An article on “Nature Divided, Scientists United” published the journal BioScience says that if the border wall were ever actually built it would impede wildlife migration, cause habitat fragmentation and slice up protected landscapes resulting in biodiversity loss. The Real ID Act of 2005 gives the U.S. Department of Homeland Security authority to waive environmental laws.


Many ways to spend $100 million to improve Utah’s air quality

In his proposed 2019 budget, Utah Governor Gary Herbert included a one-time allocation of  $100 million (up from a more typical $4 million) to help improve Utah’s air quality. If our legislators support that amount all the way to the final budget allocation, what are the most effective way to spend it? The good ideas are flying!

The Utah DEQ suggests using it to help homeowners replace wood-burning stoves, two-stroke lawn mowers and snow blowers as well as a program to swap out older, dirtier diesel engines used in industry, school buses and public transit.

Some Utah environmental groups suggest also restoring Utah’s electric vehicle tax credit would help (it expired in 2016 and in 2018 an extra tax on electric vehicles kicked in to replace uncollected gasoline taxes).

Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment suggest reducing speed limits on highways since the average car uses about 22% more fuel going 75 mph as opposed to 55 mph. More fuel used means more pollution.

Heal Utah says free-fare days for public transit could help get people out of their cars. (See article, this issue, by Jessica Reimer.)

The inland port planned for Salt Lake City’s Northwest Quadrant will drastically increase diesel truck and train emissions. Last year, Breathe Utah was instrumental in shaping a bill, reintroduced this year, to replace 60 freight switcher locomotives in air quality non-attainment areas. This could have a significant effect on air quality, particularly in neighborhoods that are already burdened by other pollution sources.

Regulations and the corresponding funding to maintain water levels in The Great Salt Lake would reduce particulate air pollution.

Other ideas include home weatherization incentives, carbon taxes and penalties for “rolling coal” diesel engines modified to deliberately emit clouds of soot.

CATALYST suggests including support for our 7th Annual Clean Air Solutions Fair in early 2020!

If you’d like to see an interesting video on what air quality was like in Salt Lake in the 1940s, click here!


Cottonwood Heights

Kudos to Cottonwood Heights which has joined the list of Utah communities committed to clean energy. In January the Cottonwood Heights City Council adopted a goal of 100% clean, renewable electricity for city operations by 2022 and within the City by 2032.

So far, Moab, Park City and Salt Lake City along with Summit County have adopted similar clean energy goals.

This article was originally published on January 31, 2019.