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.
King, and Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake, would not disclose specific actions they thought Herbert could take to reduce Utah’s air quality problems, with Arent only saying that a number of air quality bills would be introduced this session.
“People need to contact their legislator,” she said. “We do have a role here.”
Smith remained firm that everyone has a part to play. She passed out statistics from her department that she said shows 57 percent of the air pollution is caused by vehicles, 32 percent comes from area sources such as small businesses, homes and other sources and 11 percent comes from industry.
Shutting down all industry, she said, won’t solve the overall air quality problem.
“We wish it were that easy. It is all of us.”
Matheson said the governor has imposed anti-idling restrictions on state employees, implemented a program calling for transition to clean-fuel fleet vehicles when possible and is moving state buildings toward greater energy efficiency.
“We understand the frustration,” he said. “We are all frustrated. It is about cleaning our air.”
State air quality regulators have adopted 24 new rules in the past several months to curb levels of the finest particles of pollution called PM2.5. The rules are part of a comprehensive plan to come into compliance with federal air quality standards, but one of the biggest targets — industry — still awaits regulators’ actions.
The Utah Division of Air Quality has brought an independent contractor on board to sift through what controls are plausible and what are necessary to reduce emissions from industry.
That portion of the plan is expected to be finished in May or June and up for public comment.
Dave McNeill, at a state Air Quality Board meeting later in the day, said if people have ideas about how to clear the air of pollutants the division welcomes them.
“We are desperate,” said McNeill, the division’s branch manager. “There is not a big silver bullet. These are small, small BBs that we are shooting at this thing.”
In that same meeting, Utah County resident David Leavitt complained about a new rule that will limit his current use of an outdoor wood-burning furnace. The rule, which will ban any new outdoor wood boilers in any of the non-attainment areas, will put Utah in a singular category of being the only state in the nation with an outright ban, Leavitt said.
“Banning a particular kind of wood burning is not establishing an air standard.”
But McNeill later told board members it is these kind of new rules that will chew away at the air quality problem.
“He said what we were asking him to do is change his lifestyle,” McNeill said. “We are asking everyone to change their lifestyle. We are asking to get cars off the road. There is no sacred cow here. We’re going after everybody.”
Although Leavitt asked the board to reconsider adoption of the rule, the board endorsed it.