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Utah adopts new pollution control plan, but will it work?

SALT LAKE CITY — Members of the Utah Air Quality Board greeted the new year Wednesday by voting on a pollution control plan intended to bring areas of the Wasatch Front into compliance with federal clean air standards.

Industrial upgrades are conservatively estimated to cost $100 million and impact places like Hill Air Force Base, the University of Utah, refineries, Kennecott and more.

The approval came after more than a year's worth of work by Utah Division of Air Quality staff to model controls for industry using "best available control technology," impacting close to two dozen polluting sources.

The plan targets those industries that annually release 70 tons or more of PM2.5, or fine particulate pollution 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

A new plan was required after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reclassified Utah's nonattainment areas from "moderate" to "severe" in May 2017 after the areas failed to meet the 24-hour standard.

Those areas are Utah, Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and portions of Box Elder and Tooele counties, which experience high pollution spikes in inversions that exceed standards set by the federal Clean Air Act.

Under the adopted plan, Kennecott will be required to abandon its coal-fired power plant and use natural gas, not just in the winter but during the summer months, which the company said will add costs and is not applicable to the PM2.5 plan.

"There's a long history of EPA allowing for seasonal controls," argued Jacob Santini, an attorney for Rio Tinto's Kennecott, detailing the company's concerns.

The company had already agreed to cease unit operations during the winter when the area is vulnerable to inversions, but those controls will now be in place throughout the year.

Joro Walker, an attorney with Western Resource Advocates, said afterward the new state requirement involving Kennecott was the right move.

"Obviously we are very happy about the fact that Kennecott will be required to burn natural gas at its power plant year around. That is a signficant benefit for the valley."

But Walker, joined by advocates from HEAL Utah and the Sierra Club, said the plan could have gone further and did not require enough emission reductions from industry.

Jessica Reimer, policy associate for HEAL Utah, said she does not believe the plan will result in attainment with federal clean air standards, which the state has a December deadline to meet.

"Though political hurdles need to be addressed, there are stricter emissions standards that Utah can adopt to help reduce both on-road and non-road emissions, two sources that are difficult to control, yet significantly contribute to overall emissions," her written comments to the board said.

The organization also expressed disappointment that an earlier provision to require annual stack testing instead of every three years had been removed.

Division Director Bryce Bird said the frequency of the required testing depends on the "variability" of the operations. For some industries, the annual stack testing does not add any extra environmental benefit, but for others more periodic testing is appropriate.

Bird also added that he believes the modeling, plus the weight of additional evidence used in development of the plan, will demonstrate compliance with clean air standards.

"We think the plan does actually result in attaining the standard in 2019," he said.

Contributing: Michael Anderson