EPA Rejects Utah Clean Air Plan Due to Natural Dust Storms

Published February 1, 2010

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to deny several Utah urban areas certification under the Clean Air Act, claiming, among other things, the state has failed to deal adequately with natural dust storms.

Dust Storms Exceed EPA Limits
In a December 1 filing in the Federal Register, EPA said it plans to reject Utah’s 2005 request that Salt Lake City and certain other urban areas in the state be reclassified as being in compliance with Clean Air Act standards for particulate matter, commonly known as soot and dust.

Utah was declared a “nonattainment area” by EPA in 1990, and state officials have been scrambling ever since to find ways to reduce levels of fine particles in the state’s urban areas.

Technologies are available to reduce soot caused by emissions from vehicle tailpipes and other heavy equipment, but Utah’s location in the middle of a desert poses unique problems. Specifically, human-emitted soot intermingles with dust from the surrounding desert to bedevil the best efforts of state regulators. And no challenge is bigger than coping with the area’s legendary dust storms that kick up in the desert west of Salt Lake and blow into the city on prevailing winds.

EPA’s regional office in Denver faults Utah for failing to supply it with information on how it plans to deal with pollution kicked up by the desert’s strong winds.

 “Quite honestly, we’re a bit frustrated,” Cheryl Heying, director of Utah’s Division of Air Quality, told the Associated Press (December 3). “You can’t control 70-, 80- or 90-mile per hour winds.” Heying points to the strides the state has made in cutting emissions from industrial, agricultural, and commercial sources.

Dust Storms Cool the Climate
The public was given 30 days to respond in writing to EPA’s proposal to reject Utah’s plan. The agency is expected to issue a final decision sometime in 2010. Under the Clean Air Act, jurisdictions failing to meet national air quality standards face an eventual cutoff of federal transportation funds.

Geochemist William Balgord, Ph.D., president of Environment & Resources Technology, pointed out natural dust storms are not only difficult to control but also beneficial. They help keep the earth cool, he said.

“There may be far more to this than EPA realizes,” Balgord said. “Dust itself is a potential negative climate feedback.… As climate attempts to warm, deserts respond by heating up, stirring up stronger winds, and holding more reflective dust in suspension. Thus, a negative feedback ensues.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.