Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker is tired of the dirty air that blankets his city at this time of year. His State of the City address, delivered on Wednesday at the University of Utah, centered exclusively on this topic. In his address, Becker challenged residents, industry, and the Utah legislature to do something about the valley’s polluted air – even if it stings.
Likely the least popular of his proposals was a larger tax at the gas pump, citing the resulting change in driving habits as the intended outcome. Representative Jim Nielson (Republican – Bountiful) is proposing HB 240, a bill specifically designed to increase the gas tax by 7.5 cents per gallon over the next five years. This, however, was not Becker’s only proposed policy change.
“Did you know that by Utah’s own law, our state air quality standards can be no more strict than the federal ones?” Becker asked, “…and since when do we allow the federal government to tell Utah what to do?” As a Democrat, Becker was turning the tables on Utah’s tea-party conservatives who use state sovereignty as a mantra. This time, he wants to make the Utah air quality standard more strict than that of the EPA.
Becker understands ecological matters, having conducted his post-graduate, academic research on green initiatives. He faces a conservative state legislative body that may object to burdening their constituents with greater taxes for vehicle fuel, especially in rural parts of the state where air pollution is not as prevalent. “Then let our local authorities do it here in the Wasatch Front,” says Becker. He believes that metropolitan Utah is missing some economic development opportunities because of the dirty air and that it’s time to stop talking about solutions and begin efforts to fix the problem.
After Mayor Becker’s State of the City speech, the Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ) was scheduled to meet and review their current efforts at a state implementation plan (SIP) to see if pollution controls are in compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations limiting particulate matter emissions – a standard that Mayor Becker believes should be more strict in Utah. The meeting included numerous activist organizations who were demanding loopholes be closed allowing industrial polluters to avoid pollution controls when their equipment malfunctions or is in operational transition. Several clean air advocates attending the DAQ meeting also called for the recusal of industry representatives who are seated on the DAQ board.
The DAQ ultimately approved Utah’s stage plan on a 6-to-1 vote and development of a longer term plan is ongoing.