What we need to do is have reasonable goals to have clean safe cities. All of us are going to have to work at it, but we will all benefit from it. The benefits of improving our air quality are large enough that it is worth it. —Arden Pope, a Brigham Young University professor
SALT LAKE CITY — Christine Frandsen refuses to be bullied by the bad air of the Wasatch Front.
Her husband and her four children all have asthma, but she will not be permanently chased away from her Utah home.
"It is not as if there is a magic place we could go and it would be better," she said. "What we can do is stay and get involved to try to make things change."
Changing habits is at the forefront of the search for solutions to Utah's air pollution problem. Combine errands for fewer trips. Pay attention to the type of car you drive and its pollution efficiency. Don't burn a fire in your fireplace as often.
Christine Frandsen joined the Utah Asthma Coalition. Their household consciously chooses to have one car, so her husband bike-commutes to Brigham Young University where he is a professor.
On days their 4-year-old, Lincoln, goes to preschool, he bike commutes with his dad. The school is three miles away, but the exercise strengthens his lungs.
"When the air is good, the biking makes the children healthy and strong."
Christine Frandsen said she believes turning off the key to the car is the key to cleaning up our air.
"How you commute, how often you drive, is the No. 1 thing that can make a difference as a family."
Utah state government, local government, clean air groups, the Salt Lake Chamber and scores of others spread some common messages: walk more, bike more, drive less, share rides, the list goes on.
The ugly and unhealthy temperature inversions on the Wasatch Front are no longer being accepted as a geographical, mountain-induced fact of life. Residents are tired of being helpless hostages and want to be part of some sort of solution that power washes out the gunk. A 2013 survey by Envision Utah shows just how many area residents are onboard: 99 percent said they are willing to act to clean up the air.
But that 99 percent seems counter to the just 2.5 percent of Utah residents who use public transportation to get to work. In Salt Lake City, the number is a bit higher: 4 percent.
Some leaders, like Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker, set the example by being among those who shun the car in favor of the bike. Ogden Mayor Mike Caldwell is doing the same — to be environmentally friendly and also to elevate the cycling status of his city.
Becka Roolf, the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for Salt Lake City, said there's a constant crush of adding bicycle lanes in the city because of the growing popularity of the bike as a mode of transportation.
The city has 211 lane-miles of on-road bikeways and its bike share program has more ridership than any other small system in the country. The city partnered too with Enterprise car rental company for a "car share" program, and although fewer than 500 people participate in it, city officials say it is growing.
There's a new push to douse the flames on fireplaces too, with clean air advocates' call for tighter restrictions or bans being bolstered by a Utah Foundation study that showed a roaring fireplace does more harm than eight hours of driving around town.
"Burning a recreational fire is a big deal," said foundation researcher Shawn Teigen.
The state's plan to curb PM2.5 emissions that is awaiting EPA approval calls for reductions from large industrial sources — 4,600 tons per year from current rates — yet allows for increases of 12 percent anticipating that economic growth will drive the need to have a cushion for more emissions.
"That is letting industry pollute more while asking people to drive less," said Terry Marasco of the Utah Clean Air Alliance and a member of Gov. Gary Herbert's Clean Air Action Team.
Advocates uniformly say not enough is being done enough to curb industrial pollution. The rallying cry is for a moratorium on new high construction, refinery or mining expansions, or for refineries to move altogether away from the Wasatch Front. They see solutions in "no excuses action," that place primacy on health over dollars and jobs provided by industry.
As the demands rage on, more than two dozen regulations passed by air quality regulators will clean up consumer products and invoke new pollution-cutting standards on small businesses like auto body shops.
Becker, joined by some public policy groups, argues real legislative change is necessary to cut down on the air pollution, including raising the gas tax, enhancing funding for UTA to provide more bus routes and allowing the divison of air quality to adopt fixes that are more stringent than the federal government.
One researcher questioned the value of implementing a tougher standard when the state can't even meet the current one on the books and if energy might be better directed at reducing vulnerabilities of populations clustered along high-pollution corridors.
Still others believe new vehicle and fuel standards called "Tier 3" will help to scrub the air; over time cleaner cars have made a signifigant dent in the amount of air pollution that exists. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is requesting $18 million for air pollution initiatives, including replacing the dirtiest of old diesel school busses.
Arden Pope, a Brigham Young University professor whose breakthrough research made the link between air pollution and adverse health effects, said it would be wise for people to remember that pollution-combatting changes have been monumental, but the problem still exists along the Wasatch Front.
"Automobiles have cleaned up dramatically — the amount of pollution coming out of the tailpipe of gasoline powered vehicles is dramatically lower. We see some improvement with industry, but industry keeps growing."
The Utah Foundation study noted the curious statistical anomaly that shows despite estimates that Salt Lake County emissions have plunged by 47 percent from 2002-2011, there has been no marked difference in the number of high pollution days during that time frame.
"While we are lowering the pollutants we are putting into the air, we can't statistically say whether there has been an increase or a decrease given the number of high pollution days," Teigen said.
He said the lesson for Utah residents should be that there is no time out or rest when it comes to cleaning up the air.
Pope agrees: "We have been struggling and trying to improve our air quality and even with that struggle, we continue to have poor air quality certainly during those times when we have stagnant air."
Both men said the lesson contained in inversions that persist despite the advances made in the war on pollution are a reminder that no single slingshot will slay the bully of bad air.
"So as we go forward, " Teigen said, "even if we take care of wood smoke, even if the UTA ramps up bus service and we put in Tier 3 standards, there is no rest period in this."
Added Pope: "What we need to do is have reasonable goals to have clean safe cities. All of us are going to have to work at it, but we will all benefit from it. The benefits of improving our air quality are large enough that it is worth it."