Guest editorial: Is clean air a casualty of the democratic process?
February 10, 2015
One of the hallmarks of our American democratic republic is that it really is a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
Nothing has taught me this lesson more effectively during my service as a Utah legislator than the public’s response to the Utah Division of Air Quality’s proposed wintertime wood-burning ban.
So far in 2015, I have received more feedback on this topic than on any other single issue. Almost all of the comments I have received on this subject, through letters, e-mails, phone calls and personal visits, have been against the proposal.
Three years ago, the Wasatch Front, plus Cache Valley, experienced one of the worst winter inversions in history. For dozens of days during the winter, it was impossible to see the mountains from the valley floor.
The media ran constant coverage of the issue, and people demanded that the legislature take steps to clean the air.
During these past three years, the legislature has spent millions of dollars studying and monitoring the air quality problems, which have persisted each winter. Using the best science experts available, state officials identified the major sources of the pollution that gets trapped in our urban valleys.
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From these findings, we learned that only 13 percent of the pollution comes from industrial sites like smokestacks and refineries. Vehicles produce 48 percent of the smog, with homes and small businesses contributing the remaining 39 percent.
Government regulation has already come down hard for nearly three decades on industry emissions, producing considerable success in reducing pollution by smokestacks and refineries.
Standards for Tier 3 engines and gasoline, which burn up to 70 percent cleaner than existing vehicles, will be phased in nationwide by 2017, producing large reductions in emissions in Utah.
Therefore, the main emission sources that remain to be addressed are homes and small businesses.
Most homes in Utah now use natural gas for heating, but propane and wood are also common. Scientists have determined that the direct burning of wood causes enormous particulate emissions compared to other technologies.
One wood stove produces as much pollution as 3,000 gas furnaces. Even new, improved wood stoves, with modern filtering technologies, still add 160 times more particulates to the air than natural gas furnaces.
For all these reasons, state science experts determined that the best course was to eliminate wood burning in the affected counties (Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Weber, Tooele, Cache and Box Elder) during Utah’s most unhealthy months, from November 1 to March 15. Homes that rely on wood as their sole source of heat would be exempted from the ban.
In early 2015, after the state Division of Air Quality launched a public relations campaign and television and radio began picking up the story, thousands of citizens jammed public hearings to protest the proposals.
Critics charged that regulators were overreacting and were being insensitive to the many residents who rely primarily on wood in the winter to heat their homes (even though the policy would allow such homes to join a registry and be exempted).
Due to the heavy public outcry, the Utah DAQ has now indefinitely shelved its proposed ban on wood burning.
Even though scientists have identified wood burning as a major contributor to Utah’s unhealthy air, the democratic process allowed citizens to express their views in opposition to the ban, which led DAQ to reverse the policy.
Hopefully with better public education and additional study, policy makers will still be able to formulate an effective approach to address the effects of wood burning on the Wasatch Front, consistent with principles of democratic representation.
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