Utah Senate Kills Clean Air Bill

Smog & Pollution Hang Over The Salt Lake Valley
Smog & Pollution Hang Over The Salt Lake Valley

The Utah Senate rejected legislation that would allow the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), under the Air Quality Board (AQB), to create rules and regulations improving the state’s air quality more stringent than federal standards.

Currently, the AQB is bound by state law to not exceed federal regulations, a restriction that no other state agency is bound to.

Senator Gene Davis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) has proposed similar legislation in the past—most notably last year with SB 164, which died in the final days of the session.

Using similar arguments, Davis said that this year’s version, SB 87 – Environmental Protection Amendments, “ties our hands to the minimum standards of the federal government.”

Attempting to leverage the legislature’s well-known automatic rejection of all-things federal, Davis said “We have a lot of discussion up here about federalism, the rights of the state to do things… we shouldn’t be tying ourselves to the federal government’s rules and regulations only. We should be looking at Utah solutions to our problems of clean air.”

Addressing concerns that the public would be left out of the rule making process, Davis reminded the full Senate during his opening statement that the DAQ would still have to follow the regular rule-making process, including public meetings and public comment—a practice other state agencies also have to go through.

Senator Kevin Van Tassell (Republican – Vernal) nonetheless opposed the bill, rhetorically asking Davis if members of the DAQ are elected—to which Davis responded that the members of the DAQ are appointed by the governor and that the public is provided the opportunity to provide input. No state agencies’ board members are elected by the general public.

“I have issues when we give total authority to a board to make policy without any election, any ability for the electorate to have [the ability] to recall input.” Van Tassell would state for the body.

Van Tassell’s comments prompted Senator Jim Dabakis (Democrat – Salt Lake City) to remind the body that “every board in the state, outside of the Division of Air Quality, has the ability to do what we have excluded the Air Quality Board [from doing]…[this bill] would just be putting the Air Quality Board in the same position as every other board in the state that creates regulations.” He also reminded his fellow lawmakers that the AQB is not made up of “wild-eyed, crazy environmentalists,” but of representatives from polluting industries such as Kennecott, the Manufacturers Association, Tesoro, and energy-producing counties.

The bill would “clearly represent corporate interests,” Dabakis passionately concluded, but still give the AQB the ability to create a “reasonable Utah standard” and clean up the bad air that plagues much of Utah.

Senator Wayne Harper (Republican – Taylorsville) said he was concerned by Davis’ legislation because it didn’t set specific parameters on the AQB, while Senator Todd Weiler (Republican – Woods Cross) attempted to appeal to the conservative body by emphasized that the legislation could be considered a state’s rights issue.

Senator Margaret Dayton (Republican – Orem) took a different approach as she attempted to counter the bill, noting that the AQB currently is able to go above and beyond federal standards—if the AQB petitions the Environmental Protection Agency and goes through the public approval process. She added that current rules “do not prevent [the AQB] from creating more stringent rule making that the federal government has in place. If we choose to make a different approach, we already have the power as the state…if we are going to make a change in our laws, a Utah standard, the Air Quality Board has to make a written finding after public notice—which is very fair to everyone involved.”

Despite Davis reminding the body that the DEQ has been incredibly underfunded—making scientific studies a financial improbability—Dayton claimed that SB 87 is not necessary because a process already exists for a Utah solution, so long as the public and scientific process is followed.

Senator Scott Jenkins (Republican – Plain City) took a snarky and condescending tone as he stood to speak against SB 87.

“There is an assumption out there that the air is dirtier, rottener than it is have ever been, and we are gagging to death [to the point where] we can hardly live in this valley. The fact is the air in this valley has never been cleaner since 1952, when we started keeping track of it. I want you all to take a good, deep breath… it’s good stuff, isn’t it?”

Appearing to be confused that the legislation would actually remove federal minimum standards, Jenkins added “We are doing a good job in Utah, we have improved every year, and we will continue to improve [the air]. [This bill] assumes that the federal government is going do a better job than we have done, and that is not the case either.”

“We as a state have a responsibility here, and all this does is take our responsibility and defer it to bureaucrats. And I don’t say that disrespectfully, I say it because bureaucrats are people who are not elected, [but rather people] we appoint to do things. We are thus not standing up to our responsibility as elected officials. We don’t have the right to do that, I believe… we have the right to be involved, and we are doing a great job of it.” Jenkins then asked his colleagues to take another deep breath.

Davis, as part of his summary would tell the body that the legislature has ultimate control over rule-making through the Administrative Rules Committee, wherein any rule the AQB instituted could be overturned—keeping regulatory power out of the hands of any regulatory body.

“This bill is about finding Utah solutions in the months of December and January and in the summer, when we have real air quality problems in Utah. We need to find our own solutions.” Davis would plead.

SB 87 then failed on a vote of 12-16.

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