Extremely poor air quality routinely suffered by nearly all Utahns who live in metropolitan areas has become a critical public health issue. As a result of its unique geography, prevailing weather patterns, which are feeling the effects of climate change, and an urban structure that requires large-scale commuting, air pollution levels in many Utah cities have never been higher. Air quality across Utah population centers during the winter of 2012-13 will undoubtedly be recorded as the most toxic in recent history.
Working to improve Utah’s air is now the top priority of more than 15 NGO and public health organizations. Tragically, state political and business leadership continue to avoid any action that in their view, could have a negative effect on economic development while ignoring the fact that air pollution in and of itself is a serious detriment to economic development.
Recent data related to air pollution in Utah presents the following:
- A recent Forbes magazine study ranked Salt Lake City as the ninth most toxic city in the United States (Forbes Magazine, 2/28/11). Of these top 10 most toxic, SLC has the highest Toxic Release Inventory.
- The American Lung Association gives Salt Lake County a rank of "F" for the two most important components of air pollution, ozone and particulate matter (PM2.5).
- Salt Lake County is officially classified by the EPA as “non-attainment” with National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for PM10, PM2.5, SO2.
- Air pollution monitors recently installed in the Uintah Basin measured ozone concentrations exceeding federal health standards more than 68 times in the first three months of 2010. Air pollution exacerbates existing asthma in adults and children and causes asthma and respiratory infections in those who are not otherwise predisposed.
- Air pollution increases the incidence of SIDS, low birth weight syndrome, premature birth, and infant mortality.
- Air pollution increases the incidence of the most common forms of childhood cancers, especially leukemia.
- Air pollution increases genetic damage in newborns, which may lead to increased morbidities as an adult including heart disease, strokes, diabetes and cancers. These genetic aberrancies can be passed on to subsequent generations.
- Air pollution increases rates of sudden death, heart attacks and strokes. It increases blood pressure and shortens life expectancy. Using the formula published by the American Heart Association, between 1,000 and 2,000 Utahns die prematurely annually because of air pollution.
Despite alarming statistics and mounting public pressure, state leaders continue to support a development-focused agenda that only acts to exacerbate air pollution:
- Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) approval to expand Kennecott mine operations by 32% (Kennecott is already the largest static source polluter in the Salt Lake valley).
- DEQ approval to increase the capacity of the Salt Lake oil refineries.
- 2013 legislative bills aimed at cutting the budget of the DEQ and eliminating the DAQ.
- Unnecessary speed limit increases on Interstate highways.
- Steps to decrease the number of energy efficient cars permitted in HOV lanes while increasing the numbers of those who buy permits.
- Adoption of a voluntary-only pollution model, UCAIR that depends entirely on individual action to meet EPA standards.
- Failure of the legislative majority to initiate any bills aimed at reducing air pollution.
- Failure to develop a State Implementation Plan (SIP) for air quality that meets current EPA standards.
- Continue to push forward plans to extend the West Davis (formerly Legacy) Parkway.
- Relocating the Utah State prison for real estate development at a cost of $500-600M.
- Continuing to push for more fossil fuel extraction, dependence on coal-burning power plants and only modest support for renewable energy development—Utah ranks last of all western states.
The Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club believes any plan to reduce air pollution in Utah valleys must include:
- Smart growth strategies that result in less dependence on motorized travel.
- Increased dependence on mass transit and alternative transportation modes to include development of a mass transit plan that serves the majority of urban commuters.
- Increased support for carpooling and use of car pool lanes by multi-occupant users rather than those who pay for the privilege.
(The following list was taken from the recommendations of several groups working to improve air quality in Utah. These are the Department of Air Quality PM 2.5 Workgroup, the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club Conservation Committee).
- Reduction of emissions permitted from point sources, i.e. Rio Tinto and refineries.
- Free use of UTA during the winter inversion season Nov. 15 through March 15. Paid for by state general fund or partial diversion of the gasoline tax.
- Increased collaboration/citizen group input with UDOT and Wasatch Front Regional Council in the development of transportation master plans to ensure less emphasis on highway development and more emphasis on alternative transportation.
- Increased state and local support for alternative fuel based transportation to include: enhanced infrastructure development to support electric and natural gas vehicles, and increased/extended tax, licensing and HOV lane incentives.
- Adopt California standards on diesel emissions.
- Strict no idling ordinances.
- Phase out of wood and coal burning stoves and fireplaces. Gradual phase out with subsidy or tax credit for those totally dependent on those sources for heat.
- Resume 4-day work week for state employees.
- Staggered office work hours (Flex-Time/expanding hours of commute).
- Adjust vehicle tax so that it is inversely proportional to emissions, especially from diesel engines.
- Broadcast PM2.5 levels daily on freeway message boards, not just during red and yellow alert days. Expand this message system to all freeway message boards, not just some of them.
- Broader education campaigns about the health affects of pollution.
- Launch campaigns to encourage families to allow their kids to walk and ride their bikes to school.
- Increased collaboration with UTA to ensure mass transportation master plans that more effectively provide effective transportation alternatives.
- Ensure/require emissions permitted from point sources, i.e. Rio Tinto and refineries, meet or exceed EPA human health standards.
- Support election of public officials who support clean air and a healthy environment.
- Advocate that all new electric energy supplies for the state of Utah should come from renewable resources.
- The establishment of air pollution warning indices that promotes the safety of pregnant women and their unborn children.
- A goal of attaining 25% of Utah’s power from renewable energy sources by the year 2020.
- Provide medical expertise to organizations working on urban planning, renewable power, increasing fuel efficiencies, and transportation alternatives.