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Utah Supreme Court Hears Refinery Pollution Case

Judy Fahys
Environmentalists have fought expansion at the Utah petroleum refineries as part of a broader push for clean air. But a change in state law means relearning how to present those cases to the Utah Supreme Court.

Environmentalists have complained for years about expanding refineries adding pollution to the Salt Lake Valley’s air.

But the Utah Supreme Court ruled against them two months ago in a similar case about Tesoro’s expansion on the Salt Lake- Davis County line. On Wednesday, the five justices heard oral arguments in a similar case challenging the nearby Holly refinery’s expansion. And like the past case, their discussion centered on legal process, not air pollution.

“The court was very direct in saying, if you’re going to bring a case to the Supreme Court, you actually have to prepare and bring the case in the proper way,” said Christian Stephens, an assistant Utah Attorney General who defended how state regulators handled Holly’s expansion.

Stephens addressed questions outside the courtroom after oral arguments. He revisited what he said were flaws in both the Holly case and the Tesoro case. The environmental-group lawyers hadn’t laid out their arguments properly, “and their approach here was really identical.”

The Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment brought the Tesoro case, and it was joined in fighting the Holly expansion by another environmental group, Friends of Great Salt Lake. Both refinery cases are pioneering because they are the first in a new process state lawmakers created five years ago to limit environmental challenges.

“We have to reduce emissions,” says Joro Walker, the attorney who argued both refinery cases. She pointed out the justices didn’t discuss the broader issues underlying the cases, which are linked to federal regulations that require Utah to cut winter smog episodes.

“The Holly expansion allowed a significant increase in emissions,” she said after the oral arguments.” Our position is that the law prevents that from happening. That was the argument we wanted to make.”

The justices are expected to decide the case in the months ahead.

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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