Report highlights 2016 challenges, opportunities on Utah’s environmental front


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It was busy year in 2016 for Utah’s environmental regulators, who responded to the state’s largest and most protracted algal bloom outbreak in modern history and oversaw the rollout of the nation’s first localized study on inversion-causing pollution.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality released its annual State of the Environment report Thursday, detailing an array of accomplishments and the work left to be done on Utah’s environmental front.

Much work will continue, including a unique air pollution study funded in part by the 2016 Utah Legislature to better understand the complex chemical reactions at play during winter temperature inversions.

The Department of Environmental Quality culled together funding from the federal government, research institutions and in-kind support for the $2 million effort, which launches in earnest this year.

Researchers from around the country plan to direct their expertise on the Wasatch Front’s buildup of PM2.5, or fine particulate pollution, and correlate that with conditions that exist at the time. State environmental officials are hoping the accumulation of that information will drive more effective regulations aimed at curbing pollutants.

“This is a big year for air quality,” said Alan Matheson, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

“We are going to be working on the development of another state implementation plan for PM2.5, and that will involve looking at different strategies to reduce pollution. Those strategies will be informed by the research that is done,” Matheson said.

In another air quality research effort, the agency took a $150,000 appropriation from the Legislature and combined its efforts with the Bingham Research Center and the Tri-County Health Department to track storage tank leaks at oil and gas wells in the Uinta Basin.

The inventory of those leaks will guide discussions and action with the oil and gas industry, which has been a collaborative partner in the effort to reduce fugitive emissions.

Paul Hacking, executive director of the Uintah Impact Mitigation Special Service District, said the basin’s buildup of ozone in the winter is a concern for residents, who also realize the oil and gas industry is 60 percent of the region’s economy.

“Our basin is not unique for fugitive emissions from (industry) tanks, but our basin is the only oil and gas producing basin that is engulfed on all sides,” Hacking said. “Even though we can’t control the geography, what we can control is to determine if there are efficient ways for the oil and gas industry to reduce emissions.”

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality also released preliminary findings of a hazardous air pollutants study that will receive renewed attention during an intensive two-week survey this month and again in the summer.

Monitoring sites in Lindon, Bountiful and West Valley City revealed elevated levels of the hazardous pollutants — such as formaldehyde and methylene chloride in Bountiful — but scientists don’t yet know the exact cause.

Even though West Valley City had elevated concentrations of lead, the amount did not come close to breaching national air quality standards. The agency suspects, in that instance, that mining operations may be the culprit.

Regulators were galvanized into emergency response mode when the hot temperatures of July and the low levels of Utah Lake combined to fuel an algal bloom outbreak that covered nearly 90 percent of its surface.

The scope of the bloom on the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi was unprecedented, leading to the closure of marinas and a state park, and public health worries over exposure to neurotoxins caused by cyanobacteria.

The harmful bloom spread to the Jordan River and led to fears of contamination in secondary water supplies for southern Salt Lake County. Soon after, Payson Lakes also experienced an outbreak, and Scofield Reservoir was closed to anglers and boaters after an outbreak infected that high mountain reservoir.

Scofield experienced a massive fish kill, and concentrations of microcystin — a liver toxin — prompted concerns over secondary and main drinking water supplies in Helper and Price.

The Utah Water Quality Board awarded a $1 million hardship grant to regulators to accelerate research on the formation of blue-green algae at Utah Lake, and the state ordered sophisticated detection devices that may help in future responses.

The protracted algal bloom outbreak at multiple water bodies in the state prompted more than 500 calls to the Utah Poison Control Center from people either worried about exposure or those seeking more information on how to safeguard themselves.

State regulators worked with the Environmental Protection Agency, multiple county health departments and water providers to provide detailed public updates, and they’re hoping the lessons learned from 2016 don’t need to be put into action again.

“Obviously we don’t want it to happen again,” Matheson said, “but we will be prepared in the future to respond even more quickly if it does.”

This year will also bring a coordinated action plan to deal with the aftermath of the Tibble Fork Dam sediment release, as regulators worry that the spring runoff will unleash the contaminated sludge into irrigation systems.

A $7.3 million dam rehabilitation project caused the inadvertent release during the summer, which resulted in a fish kill along the lower American Fork River and posted advisories for the public to stay away.

Throughout the year, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality also carried out its day-to-day activities, such as compliance inspections for underground storage tanks of petroleum, oversight of remediation of contaminated industrial sites, and the recycling of used oil, waste tires and mercury switches.

Waste management and radiation control regulators also successfully oversaw the final disposal of munitions and hazardous waste from the now-shuttered Tooele Army South Site.

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