Utah’s governor touts air quality improvements, but admits more needs to be done

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah Governor Gary Herbert touted improvements to the state's air quality, but acknowledged that more needed to be done.

During a ceremonial bill signing on Tuesday at Ensign Elementary School, the governor highlighted steps the state has taken to reduce pollution. He signed a resolution encouraging people to purchase vehicles with better smog ratings, one that gets Utah a piece of the massive Volkswagen pollution settlement, one dealing with the Air Quality Board, and another that encourages schools to purchase natural gas-powered buses.

Gov. Herbert also announced that an additional $7.5 million of the Volkswagen settlement had been earmarked for the natural gas school buses. The buses, something pushed for years by Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, had been previously unfunded by the legislature.

Governor Gary Herbert (center) is surrounded by lawmakers and Ensign Elementary School students at a ceremonial bill signing for clean air bills. (Photo by Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News)

"Volkswagen came along, cheated OK," Rep. Handy told FOX 13. "We’re going to be the beneficiaries of that. The school children and the people of Utah."

Lawmakers have been taking incremental steps to address pollution in Utah, which is one of the top concerns and complaints by constituents. The state's pollution problems manifest themselves annually during the Utah State Legislature in the form of a Wasatch Front inversion.

"When we talk about inversion days, which we know about, we’ve had typically 18 on average. This last year we had seven or eight," Gov. Herbert said. "So we’re getting better."

The governor also promoted refineries beginning to switch to Tier 3 fuels, which he said would improve things. But asked if more regulation needed to be passed, the governor said he liked the direction the state was moving on pollution.

"I guess we’re not where we want to be but I like the trend," Gov. Herbert said. "We’re on the right road."

Environmental groups said Utah has taken some positive steps to improve air quality, but also insisted there was more to do.

"There have been some feel good incentives that have moved us forward, but we’ve been out of attainment with federal health standards for over a decade now," said Ashley Soltysiak, the policy director for HEAL Utah. "We need action now."

Environmentalists have criticized state lawmakers for passing some legislation they claimed rolled back air quality gains, including a reduction in solar tax credits and a bill that allowed for backyard grilling on bad air days. On Tuesday, the governor said he would review that bill again to ensure there were no "unintended consequences."

Lawmakers promise more clean air bills are coming. Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said he was planning legislation to offer incentives for people who fail their emissions inspections to get their cars fixed. House Minority Whip Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, told FOX 13 he planned to bring back his controversial carbon tax.

Rep. Briscoe argued there needed to be more incentives and oversight.

"If we just double the number of cars are we going to be where we need to be?" he said.