One thing can be said about winters in Utah. There are few ideas during the season that vanish into thin air. That’s not a reflection on the ideas; there just isn’t much thin air.
There are, however, plenty of things that go up in smoke.
OK, you may not be in the mood for inversion humor so soon after the Utah Division of Air Quality imposed its first burn and travel restrictions of the season, the consequence of stagnant air that turns the valleys of the Wasatch Front into some macabre, icy version of Dante’s Inferno.
But this is the time of year when all the calm talk about ways to clear the air — talk that mostly occurs during warm, sunny days at other times of the year — turns suddenly shrill and urgent. Six-year plans for phasing in emissions regulations are drowned out by shouts of “Do something, now!”
The state, meanwhile, has to endure annual news stories about the Wasatch Front air being the dirtiest in the nation. Picturesque valleys and stunning mountains might attract visitors, but in the winter they can only hope to stumble across one of these while trying to breathe.
You also may not be in the mood to hear that winter residents of northern Utah have been wheezing and coughing through the same thing virtually since the pioneers were told they had reached the right place. But it’s true.
A century ago — Sept. 20, 1913, to be exact — the old Salt Lake Telegram reported on a meeting of the Utah Society of Engineers, held to discuss “how to eliminate smoke evil,” as the paper put it.
The solution presented that day was to eliminate all the coal-burning furnaces in Salt Lake houses and replace them with a series of community heating plants, about one for every nine blocks. These plants, which would cost about $240,000 (about $5.7 million today), would sell heat to each home.
The engineers said that, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the day, big businesses were not causing most of the pollution. Rather, “the stoves and furnaces in private homes were responsible for a great portion of the 40 tons of soot let into the atmosphere each day in winter.” The theory was that regular folks were burning coal improperly and inefficiently.
Did you catch the echoes from 1913 there that still swirl around this issue today? We no longer burn coal, but we drive combustion engines. And contrary to conventional wisdom, buses, trucks and industries don’t pollute as much as private cars, which generate more than half our bad air.
Then, as now, us regular folks are the problem. We’re also the hardest to control, freedom being what it is.
The community heating plant idea, like the breeze on a stagnant afternoon in December, never went anywhere. Today, the Utah Division of Air Quality has instead released a new implementation plan for how to cut down on fine-particulate pollution. Over the next several years, refineries will have to upgrade their emission controls and almost two-dozen other regulations will affect what homes, businesses and auto mechanics put into the air.
But cars? The plan has few specifics in place for that, other than relying on ever-tightening emissions standards. An aggressive congestion-pricing plan, in which drivers would be charged tolls for traveling freeways on bad-air days, is considered politically unworkable. So is a plan that would allow people to ride mass transit systems for free during inversions.
Perhaps some day smart cars will be programmed to drive only to the nearest TRAX stop on hazy days, but don’t hold your fine-particulate-laden breath.
You would have to be much older than I am to compare whether the winter air is worse today than it was in 1913. I’m guessing few people would trade today’s foul air for 40 tons of soot, but that’s not much of a tradeoff.
Too bad lawmakers can’t outlaw the area’s geography, which lends itself to nasty temperature inversions. Hazy days, alas, will always be with us. We can only hope that, a century from now, we’re not still looking for new plans to make them safer.