About a week ago I got up early to shovel out from several inches of snow, only to find that a generous neighbor had done the deed already. "That's a good neighbor," I thought to myself. What it means to be a good neighbor was again on my mind at the Feb. 22 Division of Air Quality public hearing on Rio Tinto's proposed expansion of Kennecott mining operations (which would require an exception to state clean air plans).
In one corner of the room were people who generally worked for or with Rio Tinto discussing the good things that the mine brings to the Wasatch Front, such as jobs, economic growth and corporate charitable donations. The rest of the room was occupied by concerned citizens who feared that a proposed increase in mining operations of 32 percent would inevitably lead to worsened air quality, when our current air quality already routinely exceeds the minimum standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The documents submitted to the DAQ by Rio Tinto show that the expanded operations will lead to large increases in particulate and particulate precursor pollutant emissions.
Let's review some of the numbers related to Rio Tinto and our air quality.
The mark of a good neighbor is not who you are, but what you do with who you are.
Kennecott is an open pit mine. According to DAQ numbers, Kennecott is the source of about 25 percent to 30 percent of the most dangerous type of monitored particulate pollution (PM 2.5) and its precursors (mostly nitrates and sulfates) along the Wasatch Front. This is about 10 times more than the next largest polluter along the Wasatch Front. Vehicular traffic accounts for around 50 percent of similar pollutants, so it would not be far off to say that if you put together "cars and Kennecott" you've accounted for the great majority of our air pollution.
But what about the recent Rio Tinto PR campaign touting switching three of its four coal plants to natural gas? While these efforts will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to some extent our summer ozone problem, our wintertime inversions will likely be worsened. Currently Kennecott draws power from the grid in the winter, instead of burning its own coal. With the new proposal, more wintertime pollutants will be emitted along the Wasatch Front as the gas plants are to be used year round.
Some may wonder if air pollution is really a problem for our health. The American Heart Association estimates that each short term increase in PM 2.5 by 10 mcg/m3 increases the risk of cardiovascular mortality by 0.5 percent to 1.0 percent.
Peer-reviewed studies conducted along the Wasatch Front by Professor C. Arden Pope and others found that for short term increases in PM 2.5 of 10 mcg/m3, 4.5 percent more acute cardiac events occurred. For every 1 mcg/m3 increase in long-term average particulate pollution, the AHA estimates community mortality rates rise by one percent. But how high does PM 2.5 get along the Wasatch Front? In 2010, we exceeded the EPA standard of 35 mcg/m3 (obviously not at all a "safe" number) on 51 days. During our worst inversions this winter PM 2.5 levels often exceeded 60-mcg/m3.
So is Rio Tinto a good neighbor? We would argue that they are in a unique position to demonstrate just that. A good neighbor helps you out when you're sick, and eases your burden. Wasatch Front communities are sick, and as the single largest source of pollution, Rio Tinto could dramatically improve our health by not only continuing improvements in existing pollution controls, but also withdrawing their request to expand operations at Kennecott. That would be much more than good PR, that would be downright neighborly.
Gary Kunkel, M.D., is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Utah and an energy policy analyst for Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.