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Clearing the air: That air you're breathing may be slowly killing you

Published: Saturday, Aug. 11 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

"An older diesel engine creates 100 times more pollution per horsepower generated than a gasoline engine," he said. "The more diesel engines we can get off the road or upgrade to the new generation cleaner engines (Tier 4) the better."

Utah's Clean School Bus Project retrofitted 1,204 school buses throughout the state to lessen pollution, and replaced 27 older buses with new buses that meet more stringent emissions standards.

Three truck stop electrification spots in Salt Lake City, Perry and in Wendover on the Nevada/Utah border provide power hookups so big rigs' engines don’t have to idle, and also save on the consumption of fuel.

Truckers can also opt for the installation of auxiliary power units on their long-haul trucks, but such technology is expensive and federal grants are competitive.

Industry as polluter

Beyond the cars, the trucks and fuel-efficient but pollution-emitting motorcycles, industry is a primary contributor to pollution and most often is the target of clean air advocates.

Utah's air quality regulators say industry represents 20 percent of the wintertime gas emissions on a typical day in the Salt Lake area — and Rio Tinto's Kennecott Utah Copper, Moench said, is 30 percent of Salt Lake County's air pollution problem — a figure disputed by the company.

Several groups have filed a lawsuit against the mining giant to stop its expansion plans, an expansion that Rio Tinto asserts would actually decrease its overall contribution to emissions.

If Rio Tinto's mining enterprise weren't here, it would mean it wasn't contributing to the air pollution problem. But it would also mean a $1.2 billion economic powerhouse goes away, as well as the supply of nearly 25 percent of the nation's copper, 2,810 jobs and an annual payroll of $253 million, according to the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Its critics say the company makes enough money that it can afford to clean up by retiring all of its coal-fired plants and converting to natural gas or renewables and by changing its diesel fleet to the cleanest engines possible.

Kennecott is planning to replace three of its coal-fired boilers with one larger turbine and boiler powered by natural gas, but is keeping one boiler powered by coal for "power generation diversity," said spokesman Kyle Bennett. The coal-fired plant does not operate in the wintertime when pollution can be at its worst along the Wasatch Front.

Bennett said the company spent $1 billion to upgrade its smelter to make it among the cleanest in the country, using technology that shaved its sulfur emissions by 99 percent. It also has plans to upgrade its fleet to newer, larger more fuel-efficient engines.

Still, company officials acknowledge they are "absolutely not" comfortable with the levels of pollution caused by the mining operation.

"It's not acceptable to us and we are constantly working to reduce that," said spokesman Justin Jones. "We recognize it, we own it and we need to move forward in reducing it."

Rio Tinto and several refineries along the Wasatch Front have plans for expansions — plans endorsed by Utah regulators — that critics like Moench say should be shelved until Utah has done more to clean up its dirty air. It's not enough, they say, for industry to be under the "cap" when the cap is too high.

As the state crafts a pollution plan it hopes will pass federal muster, it's likely additional emission controls will be hoisted upon industry, including Kennecott, refineries and even mid-sized bakeries, auto body shops and paving companies.

Those smaller businesses, such as printing enterprises and dry cleaners, represent the fastest growing segment of polluters along the Wasatch Front, McNeill said.

"Those sources are all growing with the population and they are growing uncontrolled," McNeill said. "By 2019, area sources will be are largest polluter, emitting three times more than all of industry combined."

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