As I write this, the Wasatch Front is smothered by a shroud of the worst air pollution in the country, typical of this time of year. Last week I received numerous e-mailed pictures of a flare-off at Holly Refinery. The thick black smoke was visible throughout Bountiful, and with no wind, the dense plume persisted for hours. These are regular events along “refinery row.” The pictures speak for themselves about whether our local refineries should be allowed to expand. But below are facts that pictures cannot tell, that are being ignored by proponents of expansion, and that compel Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE) to take this issue to court.

Big oil companies will make billions exploiting Utah’s lax regulatory environment. The increased production of gasoline is going by pipeline to Nevada and California, the profits will go to Texas, and the only thing Utah gets is decades of more pollution.

Last week’s Deseret News editorial depicted Holly as magnanimously agreeing to jump through a gauntlet of regulatory hoops, emerging in a triumph of technology and altruism, with the blessing of a hard-nosed Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ) and EPA.

By no means has the EPA endorsed these expansions. It is a rare event that the EPA will block the activity of a specific polluter, and lack of pre-emptive action does not equate to EPA endorsement. As for DAQ staff’s approval: they have never turned down a single permit for any of our large polluters. In fact they don’t view that as their job. In 2009, DAQ even green-lighted a proposed power plant that would have burned Holly’s left-over petroleum coke (a fossil fuel even dirtier than coal) on the same site as the planned expansion. The only reason that never happened is because UPHE warned Bountiful residents, several hundred of whom protested at town-hall meetings and DAQ hearings, and with the help of then-Gov. Jon Huntsman and Zions Bank (the financier), ultimately killed it.

The Holly expansion is a stark example of DAQ permissiveness. Their first application was riddled with illegalities, inconsistencies, frank errors and lots more pollution. One of our refinery consultants called Holly’s permit “the worst they had ever reviewed.” It was approved carte blanche by DAQ. Holly voluntarily withdrew that application after UPHE and other groups, including the EPA, pointed out in painstaking detail, all of the permit’s illegalities. That Holly’s reapplication five months later was cleaner (but nowhere near clean enough) was the direct result of objections from UPHE and EPA, not from a hard-nosed DAQ. Consistent with their past performance, DAQ’s approval of Holly’s latest application reveals a commitment to please Holly rather than protect Utah residents.

To champion refinery expansions for a handful of jobs is to ignore both the health and economic burdens placed on the rest of us. Air pollution diminishes quality of life, depresses real estate values and prevents cleaner businesses from relocating here (just ask the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce). In fact, our biggest polluters are likely economic liabilities for the entire community, costing us cleaner jobs, tourism and broader tax base.

But the health consequences are the larger argument. People die from air pollution — from strokes, heart attacks, asthma and pneumonia. Air pollution causes cancer, impairs brain function, accelerates aging, shortens life spans, narrows arteries and raises blood pressure. It constricts placental blood flow, leading to the entire spectrum of pregnancy complications which can compromise life long health after birth. Pollution, especially refinery pollution, even damages chromosomes, diminishing the health and life expectancy of future generations.

As physicians, we see in our offices, in the hospital and on the operating table the faces of our air pollution victims. One of those faces belonged to my mother. Her picture is next to my computer. She died of pneumonia during one of our inversions.

Dr. Brian Moench is president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.