Air Quality In Utah One Of The Worst In The Country

Downtown Salt Lake City; photo Al Hartmann/Salt Lake Tribune

Downtown Salt Lake City; photo Al Hartmann/Salt Lake Tribune

When you think of air pollution, your mind goes to places like Los Angeles, New York-Newark, Chicago or other huge metro areas. But Utah? The Beehive state tries hard to sell itself as pristine and sparkling and it is…. in the mountains. But down at sea level things aren’t quite as copacetic.

The Environmental Protection Agency has ranked the Salt Lake City area as among the worst air quality in the nation. The basin is particularly susceptible to inversions: when a warm high pressure system will “seal” cold air underneath and with it, air pollution. The EPA measures five different pollutants when considering air quality: ozone, particulates, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. They use a value scale of 0-500, 0 being completely clean and 500 being cut-your-way-through-wearing-a-gas-mask. In the past month, several suburbs in the Salt Lake City area have been rated over 150, generating “red” warnings for the elderly, the very young and those who have respiratory problems.

There’s no end in sight, either. State officials have been following the phenomenon and expect another strong inversion this month, lasting about 2 weeks. In the hope of cutting back on the severity of the problem, the Utah Division of Air Quality has been floating various ideas on how to lower the pollution in the basin. Even without industrial pollution, emissions and wood stoves contribute an inordinate amount of pollution. It doesn’t help that many areas of Utah lag behind the nation in emissions standards, something that is now changing. One county council had been fighting the EPA and state regulators in adopting a new emissions testing program. They’ve changed their tune now and promise to move forward with the new standards.

A grassroots group called “Gov. Herbert, We Cannot Breathe,” held a rally at the Capitol on Wednesday. The group’s founder, Marjorie McCoy, said she thought it was “time to take action.” She has gathered almost 7,000 names on her online petition. She delivered a hard copy to the capitol at the rally. She had a companion in University of Utah student, Carl Ingwell, who started an event page on Facebook. “Let Governor Herbert Know That We Cannot Breathe” urged people to inundate Herbert’s office with phone calls and emails all day Wednesday. More than 1,100 did just that, even though Gov. Herbert is in Washington, D.C. for a few days. He did meet with environmental leaders last month and promised to put air quality at the top of the agenda of the State Department of Environmental Quality.

Since the Salt Lake basin can’t currently meet federal air quality standards, scientists have been trying to figure out ways that everyone can help cut down on this winter pollution problem. One of the ideas has been to require emission controls on char broilers. Officials are also asking Utahans to make some changes in their own habits, from not using hair spray to using environmentally friendly cleaners.

The situation is extreme and could be a preview of things to come for other areas. We may think we’ve grown wiser in our use of pollution-creating products but we might all want to re-evaluate that. When a place like Utah finds itself smothering under a blanket of smog instead of enjoying a blanket of snow, can the rest of us be far behind?

Photobucket      T. Steelman is a life-long Liberal. She has been writing online about politics since 2007. She lives in Western Washington with her husband, daughter, 2 cats and a small herd of alpacas. How can anybody be enlightened? Truth is, after all, so poorly lit…