Utah's pollution problem: Small steps making positive impact for air quality

Published: Thursday, March 31 2011 12:58 a.m. MDT

An inversion of smog hangs over the Salt Lake Valley last December. Many groups and people are working to clean up the air throughout Utah.

Tom Smart, Chopper 5, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

Forbes Magazine recently labeled Utah one of the country's most toxic states — a designation that could create concern about the health of residents and have negative repercussions on the state's economic growth.

"Businesses that think about moving to Utah look at our national beauty and in order to do that they need to be able to see it," said Marty Carpenter, spokesman for the Salt Lake Chamber.

However, Carpenter was also confident that anyone who is seriously considering coming to Utah will see that the label does not match the state's reality.

Forbes failed to mention an increasing concern for the environment in Utah and the progress Utah citizens have made in the last few years.

Since 2007, small time players have launched big time campaigns to raise awareness about Utah's air quality issues. Cherise Udell and Dr. Brian Moench are two Utah residents that are now the face of a couple of the largest clean air campaigns in Utah. Udell, founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air, worked with legislators such as Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake, and Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, to pass bills that focus on stopping idling school buses.

"In the last couple years since we started the group, the awareness has definitely increased," said Udell. "Look at the number of news articles and you will see a huge spike since the organizations have started."

Moench, president of Physicians for a Healthy Environment, got involved in the issue after becoming fed up by inversion, especially a rather harsh inversion period in 2007. He and eight or nine other physicians started to read medical literature about effects of pollution on the human body. Since the organization's inception, Moench has noticed that fewer people are allowing their cars to idle and has been told by moms that idling at school pick-up and drop-off points is decreasing.

Idling school buses and cars may not seem like much, but according to Utah's Division of Air Quality, 38 percent of Utah's pollution problems come from cars and trucks.

"We want idling to become a social faux pas," said Udell, "the way throwing trash out your window has become."

To help with vehicle emissions, Utah has also become a more bike-friendly state. Salt Lake City was given a bronze-level award as a bicycle community by the League of American Bicyclists in 2007, and was upgraded to the silver level in 2010.

"The gold level award is in the mayor's initiative," said Becka Roolf, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, "And personally I'm not going to be satisfied at stopping at gold, I'm going for platinum."

Utah's bad air is also caused by three other major categories. Large industrial contributers are 28 percent of the problem, with commercial use following in close second at 26 percent. The last 8 percent comes from household pollutions.

According to Arden Pope, professor at Brigham Young University and one of the world's leading experts in small particulate pollution and its health effects, the pollution problem hasn't increased alongside the population increase the state has experienced in the last couple of years. And that's a victory of sorts.

"We haven't gotten worse, while the numbers of cars on the road, the miles driven and the population have grown," said Pope.

Utah citizens and industries alike have made noticeable impacts to Utah's air quality since 2007. Public officials started clean air initiatives, such as the Clear The Air Challenge issued by Gov. Gary Herbert, Mayor Ralph Becker and Mayor Peter Corroon. The challenge encourages travelers of all ages to use travelwise strategies. Car-pooling, public transit and bike riding have all been deemed as travelwise ways to get around. The challenge has already saved more than 2 million pounds of vehicle emissions and more than 59,000 gallons of gas.

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