My view: U-CAIR initiative isn't good enough

By Linda Johnson

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 29 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Utah Governor Gary Herbert announces a U-CAIR clean air initiative in Salt Lake City Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012. The governor is surrounded by alternative fuel source vehicles during the news conference.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

We, The League of Women Voters of Utah and Salt Lake, have carefully examined the serious health implications of the air pollution we have in the Wasatch Front.

We listened to the testimony of physicians about the effects of pollution on human cells. We spent quite a bit of time fact checking the recent, scary statements about the harm air pollution is doing. We conclude the statements are accurate, and it is imperative to change the way air pollution is controlled here in Utah. We need stronger rules. Our valley's air is dangerously polluted. "Business as usual" isn't working.

The League monitored expansion plans (just approved) for Kennecott. The approval process moved us to action. Some time ago, Kennecott made two applications to the Department of Air Quality to expand its operations. Now Kennecott has approvals in hand, just a few short months before new EPA clean air standards go into effect. The state of Utah says, essentially, "Let them do it under the weakest rules possible; do nothing more than EPA's basic minimum."

Because of the physical shape of our valley and our weather, we get stagnant air in summer and winter temperature inversions, trapping very harmful pollution. "Minimum" isn't good enough here. The Wasatch Front is an unhealthy place to live. We need less pollution, not the same, and for sure no more. Gov. Gary Herbert's new U-CAIR initiative is helpful but does nothing to curb industrial pollution. The state is about to process two gasoline refineries' request to double their production facilities, and the air pollution they produce; as for automobiles, a major contributor, UTA is again about to cut bus service for lack of funding.

Wasatch Front pollution is acids, nitrates, sulfates, organic chemicals, metals, dust and more. Our pollution comes in two classes (divided by size because particle size is directly linked to potential to cause health problems). Larger particles, PM10s (10 micrometers in diameter or smaller), generally pass through our throats and noses and enter our lungs. Smaller ones, PM2.5s (2.5 micrometers and less), get into our lungs and also into our brains and bloodstreams, causing serious inflammation and health effects.

We've controlled the larger ones enough to comply with nationwide EPA clean air standards, though they're in the air whenever it's windy, which is often. Tiny PM2.5s are not well controlled here at all. PM2.5s come directly from fires and from fossil fuel burning (power plants, industries, smelters, refineries, building heating and vehicles). They're found in smoke and haze; volatile organic compounds (VOCs), like benzene; degreasing compounds; and many other vaporizing industrial materials.

PM2.5s pass through the mucous membranes in the nose, mouth and lungs directly into our bloodstream. Once inside us, they affect our metabolism, immune system, brain, ability to breathe, heart and blood vessels. They often include heavy metals — lead, mercury and others — which are neurotoxins and cause reduced blood flow and reduced intelligence.

High-metabolism tissues, fetuses and brains are especially affected by PM2.5 pollution. When women breathe polluted air before and during pregnancy, their fetuses are affected, and may be damaged. Fetal exposure to our kind of air pollution is strongly connected to low birth weight, premature birth, chromosomal aberrations and autism. Exposed babies are much more likely to have asthma and heart disease later in life.

We think you'll all agree this has to stop. Let's work together to improve our lives, our health and even our economic position by stopping this poisonous situation. Links to more information, ways to take action and a petition to set better standards in Utah are on our website: www.lwvutah.org.

Linda Johnson is the co-president of the League of Women Voters of Salt Lake. This op-ed was also signed by Marilyn O'Dell, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Utah; Nelda Bishop, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Utah; and Anne Zeigler, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Salt Lake.

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