Gov. Gary Herbert said he wants the state to continue on its path of “significant action” in the fight against air pollution, once again recommending that $20 million be spent to eliminate dirty, diesel-burning school buses.
Among his budget recommendations unveiled earlier this month: new funding for targeted air quality programs that include the school bus replacement program, more money for local-specific pollution research, and extra dollars for monitoring and compliance.
“We are pretty excited. I think the governor has shown his commitment to air quality through one of the most powerful tools that he has, which is his budget,” said Amanda Smith, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. “We worked very closely with his staff and the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget to develop proposals for what we think are pretty strategic ways to help with the problem.”
A seven-county area — the Wasatch Front and Cache Valley — is out of compliance with federal clean air standards on fine particulate pollution, or PM2.5, because of 24-hour spikes driven by temperature inversions in the cold of winter.
The Utah Air Quality Board has passed a slew of new regulations clamping down on emissions from industry, small businesses and even changing what products can be purchased in the state, and Utah leaders are pushing an accelerated adoption of cleaner fuel and car standards.
In the 2014 session, lawmakers ponied up more than $3 million in new money to address air quality, and upped tax incentives for cleaner cars to address what has become one of the state’s most nagging public health problems.
It is a major category of air emissions when you have these older, diesel buses that we know are running in our nonattainment areas. We can get significant emission reductions if they convert to natural gas.–Amanda Smith, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality
Herbert’s budget last year included the $20 million to take care of the school buses — which was not funded — so he is reiterating the request for the 2016 fiscal-year budget.
Smith said the buses pollute the air and pose unacceptable health risks to children.
“It is a major category of air emissions when you have these older, diesel buses that we know are running in our nonattainment areas. We can get significant emission reductions if they convert to natural gas,” she said, adding that the conversion ends up being a fiscal boost for schools as well, given that natural gas is so much cheaper than diesel fuel.
“But probably the most critical thing is that our kids are sitting on the buses and breathing that air,” Smith said.
Another key funding request is the $1.5 million Herbert wants directed to the Clean Air Replacement, Retrofit and Off-Road Technology program, which uses grants to replace old, polluting equipment.
Smith said she believes this is pivotal in the air pollution fight because grant recipients must demonstrate specific pollution reductions if old equipment is replaced.
“It is very targeted funding,” she said, adding that the agency will look at helping businesses that use lawnmowers, snowblowers or other equipment in need of replacing.
The governor also wants $1.3 million to continue the free transit pass program for state employees. Smith said the program was rolled out last year as pilot between state agencies and the Utah Transit Authority, and the goal is to continue the program for 18,000 employees.
“It makes it really plausible to state agencies to ask employees to ride public transportation,” she said.
Herbert’s budget also directs extra money for legal services in the Division of Air Quality — to review permits — and offers another $400,000 for monitoring and compliance.
Tim Wagner, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said the clean air advocacy organization is encouraged by many aspects of Herbert’s clean air funding initiatives.
“I think all of these funding requests sound pretty reasonable, and the (Clean Air Replacement, Retrofit and Off-Road Technology program) money will be effective,” he said.
Wagner added, however, that the group does not feel $400,000 is enough to boost compliance.
“The state needs to have a good enforcement arm, and they can only do that with a proper budget,” he said.