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Lawsuit Seeks to Clear the Air in Utah

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 02, 2015 3:58 PM

The skies may be getting a bit brighter in Utah, if an environmental group gets its way. Wild Earth Guardians, a nonprofit wilderness protection group, has sued the EPA for failure to protect visibility in the Beehive state.

The Clean Air Act, while mostly concerned with air pollution emissions, protects visibility in "Class I areas," primarily large wilderness areas and wildlife refuges. The responsibility for visibility protection is meant to fall on the states, but Wild Earth Guardians argues that EPA must take action after rejecting Utah's plan.

SIPS and FIPS: The Alphabet Soup of the CAA

Implementation of the Clean Air Act is meant to be accomplished by the states, who submit plans for approval to the EPA. These "SIPS," or state implementation plans, must demonstrate compliance with CAA requirements. But Utah submitted its plan five years late and it was rejected by the EPA for failure to protect against pollution from coal-fired power plants. EPA must now implement a federal plan, or FIP, the environmentalists claim.

The Desert Haze

The desert wildernesses of Utah contain five National Parks and over 30 wilderness areas, with canyons, spires and red rocked landscapes that looks like something straight from Road Runner cartoons. They bring in millions of tourists to the state a year. Some, such as Zion National Park, have long struggled with visibility problems -- Zion sought to correct a major smog issue by prohibiting cars in its main valley.

When Utah submitted its SIP, the EPA rejected it for failure to include retrofit technology for two of the state's coal plants. According Wild Earth Guardians, that rejection triggered EPA's responsibility to develop its own regional haze regulations for the state within two years. That "FIP clock" has run out, the group alleges, and the court must now force EPA to act.

If the suit is successful, this would not be the first time Wild Earth Guardians has used timing provisions in environmental laws to force government agencies to act. The group was part of a 2011 settlement over endangered species deadline litigation which forced the federal government to make determinations regarding 252 species.

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