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Air Quality Commands Lawmakers' Attention

Judy Fahys


  The Salt Lake Valley was choking with winter pollution as the Legislature convened in January. Lawmakers were compelled to step up to the challenge to clear the air.

Thousands of Utahns rallied for air pollution solutions outside the state Capitol the weekend before lawmakers settled in. No one could remember another time that so many people came together to demand a stop to the smog. Sara Baldwin Auck is an advocate for Utah Clean Energy.

“I think the message that both the public and the business community sent in advance of the legislative session was heard loud and clear by our legislature,” she said.

Lawmakers proposed more than two dozen air-quality bills. And they passed nine of them. One requires state government to transition half of its passenger fleet to green vehicles by 2018. Another lets Stericycle move its medical waste incinerator to Tooele County. Others cleared the way for more electric-vehicle charging stations and hiked state tax credit to $2500 for electric vehicles. Baldwin Auck credits both parties for the good results.

She said: “Many of the members of the air-quality caucus, the informal caucus of bipartisan legislators, really stepped up to the plate and had a lot of leadership roles on these bills.”

Lawmakers also set aside more than $3 million for air-quality programs. They funded the Division of Air Quality’s efforts to tackle wood-smoke pollution. And they promised $1.4 million for clean-air research. Steve Erickson is a veteran environmental lobbyist for the Audubon Society who wants the momentum to continue.

“It doesn’t go nearly as far as we need to go, but it’s a good start,” he said. “So we’ve got to make that commitment that this is going to be a top-notch priority for the state for years to come.”

Lawmakers killed a bill to let local transit districts raise the sales tax by a quarter of a cent for new rail lines, bus service and more. It was worth more than 90 million dollars.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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