Tempest swirls around Utah's dirty air problem

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 6 2013 8:00 p.m. MST

Participants of a clean air rally head into the state Capitol to deliver 7,330 signatures on a clean air petition to the governor in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. The Environmental Protection Agency says Salt Lake City currently has the worst air quality in the country.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s bad air problem landed in the lap of Gov. Gary Herbert and wafted into his offices Wednesday, where a boisterous rally demanding change later had advocates conducting a “sit-in” to garner attention.

The groups want Herbert to get serious about Utah’s notorious air pollution, which has propelled the Wasatch Front to the unwelcome distinction of having the worst air in the country several times this year.

“We want him to step up and give us real world solutions,” shouted Carl Ingwell, a student at the University of Utah who organized the Facebook event called “Let Governor Herbert Know that We Cannot Breathe, in which he asked people to call, email and show up Wednesday at the state Capitol to demand change.

Ingwell said he had grown weary of people complaining the air pollution was so thick you could “chew on it,” and instead wanted to move from complaints to action.

He's not alone.

In January, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment called on Herbert to declare a public health emergency, reduce speed limits to 55 mph, shut down refineries and make mass transit free because of a persistent inversion that sent air pollutants skyrocketing above the federal threshold.

That same month, activists staged a clean air rally outside the governor’s energy summit and on Wednesday, the governor was decried on signs and in social media chatter as “Dirty Herby” and “Dirty Gary.”

Is the governor to blame?

“The governor does not have the authority to shut down a legally operating business,” said Alan Matheson, Herbert’s environmental adviser and one of several staff members made available Wednesday to counter the criticism.

Herbert was out of town and was not present at the Capitol during the protest.

Matheson also said that the power to declare a public health emergency is a function of the state health department. But "nothing is off the table”in working to better Utah's air quality, including consideration of offering free public transit on bad air days.

Amanda Smith, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality — which oversees the Air Quality Division —  said offering free public transit on bad air days may “feel good,” but she wondered aloud at how effective it would be at getting people out of their cars and actually changing their personal ethic.

“Until we start to grasp that and change how we live our lives, we are going to have an air quality problem,” Smith said.

A year ago the governor issued a voluntary call to have businesses and individuals pledge to clean the air. But that call  has been met with a lukewarm reception, attracting only a few hundred pledges. UCAIR describes what businesses are doing to cut down on air pollution, but critics say the program has received very little attention and has no teeth.

Ingwell said he was tired of Herbert telling people to get out of their cars and laying the problem on the doorstep of individuals, when more action and leadership is needed from him.

“We are sick of him pointing the finger at us,” he said, much to the cheers by the crowd of people attending the rally. Afterward, rally participants said they made it to the event in a number of ways — walking, public transit, carpooling and yes, some drove up individually in their cars to rally about clean air.

Key Democrats joined in the criticism of Herbert, including Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake, who said Utah’s leaders need to stop worshiping at the alter of the free market.

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