Lawsuit threatened over Utah’s bad air

SALT LAKE CITY -- A coalition of environmental and community groups are threatening a lawsuit over Utah's notoriously bad air.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Westside Coalition, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and SLC Air Protectors are filing a notice of intent to sue the Environmental Protection Agency for not holding Utah accountable for more than a decade of bad air quality. Deadlines to come into compliance have repeatedly been missed with no consequence, the environmental groups claim.

The groups spoke with FOX 13 ahead of the filing, anticipated Thursday.

"The EPA has kind of let this slide," said Deeda Seed, the Center for Biological Diversity's local campaign manager.

The heart of their complaint is the fact that Utah has been in and out of compliance with federal air quality standards when it comes to PM 2.5 since at least 2006. That's the air pollution that is unhealthy and makes the Salt Lake City area look ugly when an inversion sets in.

"This has been going on for 10 years," said Jonny Vasic, the executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. "We haven't been in attainment on and off."

For the Westside Coalition, the bad air directly impacts their neighborhood. Surrounded by freeways and refineries, the group claims it has had an unhealthy impact on their residents with breathing problems.

"On bad air days, I cough constantly," said Richard Holman. "It’s just unfair to residents given our situation."

The Environmental Protection Agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment from FOX 13 because of the ongoing government shutdown. But the Utah Department of Environmental Quality insisted it has been taking steps to clean up the air pollution.

"We see each year the emissions going down despite increases in population," said Alan Matheson, the executive director of Utah DEQ. "There’s no lack of commitment to improving air quality. In fact, it’s a high priority."

On Wednesday, the state's Air Quality Board voted to approve a set of rules at the heart of the environmental groups' claims. The rules are meant to bring Utah into compliance with federal air quality regulations. The board also declared that industries will not get a seasonal exemption when air quality isn't as bad. (Vehicles still account for the most air pollution in the state.)

The Utah DEQ said the state would start to come into compliance in 2019.

"There’s been absolutely no pass for the state. We know we’ve got requirements to meet," said Matheson. "We’ve been working with all stakeholders to make progress and we’ve made tremendous progress to reduce emissions. That’s got to continue."

But it may not be enough to stop a lawsuit.

"Our air quality problems are not getting better, they’re getting worse," Seed told FOX 13. "And as our community is talking about new development, things like the inland port which could be enormously polluting, how can we have those conversations when we haven’t dealt with the existing problem?"