SALT LAKE CITY — Collaboration is about finding common ground, and there is nothing Utah residents hold in common more than the air we breathe, said Alan Matheson, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, at an event Thursday at the University of Utah.
On the same day that Gov. Gary Herbert announced his budget recommendations, with $100 million designated for air quality efforts, students, stakeholders and community members gathered at the S.J. Quinney College of Law to discuss how to overcome divisiveness and disparate interests to solve Utah’s air quality problem.
The event, titled “Collaborating on Air Quality: From Pollution to Solution,” was co-hosted by the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program, part of the Wallace Stegner Center at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, and the Langdon Group, a company based in Salt Lake City that facilitates collaboration.
Representatives from multiple state agencies, like the Utah Division of Air Quality and Utah Department of Transportation, as well as advocacy groups, like Breathe Utah and the Sierra Club, gathered to identify barriers to clean air solutions such as lack of political will, insufficient funding, and general misunderstanding of the sources of air pollution. One suggestion was to help more businesses in the construction, health and tech industries identify their own interests in working towards cleaner air.
Collaboration is different than compromise, said Danya Rumore, director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program at the University of Utah. Whereas compromise might be compared to mixing hot water with cold water to get lukewarm water, collaboration is mixing water with bananas, nuts and other ingredients to get something better than you had before: banana bread.
“Air quality is one of those areas where we need these innovative strategies,” said Rumore. “There is no one, right, single solution. There is only better or worse interventions.”
Teri Newell, deputy director of the Utah Department of Transportation, said that UDOT is collaborating with public transportation agencies to help people get around more efficiently.
“I work for a transportation agency that does not have specific goals for air quality,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean I am not affected by this issue.”
According to Newell, UDOT studies show that the state is reaching the expansion limit for I-15.
“When we get to six lanes each direction, that’s the widest we can go for I-15. That’s something you’ll start hearing from us as a department,” she said.
Now, we have to develop alternatives.
“We are going to come together in a truly collaborative way as a community,” she said. “As UDOT, we need to be supporting transit. … When we make smart decisions, I think that will have an effect on air quality.”
Using state funds to help railroad companies replace dirty locomotives is another opportunity for collaboration that Ashley Miller, policy director for Breathe Utah, supports.
While the state cannot set emissions standards for locomotives, it can incentivize Union Pacific to replace dirty machines like switcher locomotives, she said.
Rep. Steve Handy, who represents the Layton area, tried to get money to start a partnership with Union Pacific during the last legislative session, but legislators questioned why funding should be given to a multi-billion dollar company.
“Legislators thought Union Pacific should do it themselves,” said Miller. “But the Clean Air Act prohibits us from regulating that industry.”
Legislators, she said, are interested in getting the most "bang for our buck."
Thom Carter, executive director of the Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR), talked about how to get the most for our money by removing seemingly small sources of pollution that have a significant combined impact.
For example, people who own gas-powered snow blowers use them for eight hours a winter on average, Carter said. But, because snowblower engines are so dirty, those emissions are equivalent to someone driving from Los Angeles to Miami.
As a solution, UCAIR purchased 450 electric snowblowers for people to buy at a reduced rate, if they turned in an old machine. Twelve thousand people signed up, said Carter.35 comments on this story
“People when given the opportunity to succeed, will succeed,” he said.
UCAIR also helped purchase 40 idle-free school buses and is working on a lawn mower exchange program.
Matheson was optimistic about the future of Utah’s air, but said that we need to keep working hard to find solutions.
“Those that say we can’t do anything and should give up are wrong. The efforts we are making are making a difference. But the people saying we’ve achieved a lot and should celebrate — we’re not there yet either,” he said.