Salt Lake City, Utah and Houston, Texas have, to some extent, similar air quality problems. Both cities suffer from an excessive amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in their environment and VOCs are a precursor to both ozone and particulate air pollution. There are many sources of VOCs but the main offenders are motor vehicle emissions and large petroleum industries such as oil refineries and chemical plants.
In Salt Lake City it is estimated that over 50 percent of the particulate and ozone air pollution is due to chemical reactions involving VOCs emitted by motor vehicle traffic. How much the oil refineries contribute is open to question as the monitoring uses older and inadequate methodology that gives underestimates of the true amounts. As newer technologies develop, we will get a more accurate estimate of the VOC output from these industries.
A recent series on KUER informs us that Houston has significantly improved its air quality. Houston's petroleum-based industries supply the nation with about 25 percent of our gasoline and a third of our plastics so this is a very vital industry for that area and the entire U.S. However, because Houston was named as the city with the country's worst air pollution it knew something had to be done. Texas, not known for a liberal or progressive government and which is very pro-petroleum, required these petroleum-based industries to utilize the latest and most expensive technologies to measure and control VOC. This resulted in improved air quality and the city began to meet EPA standards although it still has major problems with motor vehicle emissions.
The Wasatch Front in Utah also suffers from high VOC emissions from motor vehicles and from five petroleum refineries that are concentrated at the Salt Lake-Davis County line. We too must act to lower wintertime particulate and summertime ozone pollution. We exceed EPA standards for fine particulates and barely meet current EPA standards for ozone that are likely to become stricter in the near future.
To control motor vehicle emissions we need newer technologies combined with better mass transport and to make other means of travel such as bicycling safer. It is also time to take the oil refineries to task. One of them is applying for a permit to almost double its production and another is planning to do so. Although they will lower their VOC emissions per unit of product, the increase in output will still result in overall net increases. Also, diesel truck deliveries of crude oil will increase with increased diesel emissions that also contain VOCs. The state should demand the installation of best available control technology (BACT) despite its cost. Also, they should be required to install the best available monitoring technology. Yes, this is costly and yes we do need their products. However, they are profitable and can pass costs onto us, the consumers, by raising the price of gasoline a penny or two a gallon.
What is our health worth? Physician and emergency room visits cost money. Hospitalizations cost even more. Polluted air causes patients with asthma to increase the use of inhaler medication. Those with cardiovascular disease will experience more heart attacks and strokes with an increase in mortality. As a physician, my responsibility is to improve the health of my patients. To me this takes precedent over corporate profits.
The state should require BACT and optimal monitoring. If not, the state should use funds allocated to attract industry to Utah to help the refineries move and build an ultramodern facility away from the Wasatch Front where they will be less polluting, have less waste of product and not contaminate a valley prone to inversions. If we want less pollution, it is the refineries that should be moved, not the prison.
We the public must demand more from our leaders. They must know that we value our health more than the profits of large corporations that are based in Texas and elsewhere.
Richard E. Kanner is a board member of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a former member and chairman of the Utah Air Quality Board.