Regulators: 2014 inversion season was a mixed bag

Published: Tuesday, March 4 2014 4:10 p.m. MST

An inversion dirties the view of the city from 11th Avenue Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013. The Wasatch Front routinely battles ugly inversions each winter when stagnant air gets trapped on the valley floor and pollution levels spike to unhealthy levels.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Wasatch Front had more "bad air" days this past inversion season than it did a year ago, but, overall, pollution was not nearly as bad as 2013.

Early data analyzed by the Utah Division of Air Quality show that there were 31 days above federal Clean Air Act standards during the inversion season from Nov. 1, 2013, to March 1, 2014, compared to 29 days during the same period the previous season.

Donna Kemp Spangler, spokeswoman with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said the data show more bad air days, but pollution values during those times were far below what they were in 2013.

In Utah County, for example, the highest value recorded of fine particulate pollution was 124.5 micrograms per meter in 2012-13, compared to 69 micrograms per meter this past season.

"What that says to me is that people are paying attention and that they are very aware," she said. "When it is really bad, they are going to limit their driving and they are going to take measures so it does not become worse."

Other factors come into play such as weather and wind patterns, regulators say.

“Every year is different than the last because meteorology plays a major role in the number and duration of inversions we experience,” said Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality. “While we are optimistic that we will continue to see improved air quality because of the rules and regulations in place, this winter confirms that we need to increase our combined efforts to reduce the emissions that are trapped by the inversions.”

This season marked the full-fledged operational debut of a new approach by state air quality regulators in which they called for air pollution reduction strategies well in advance of fine particulate levels reaching the designated threshold.

The idea was to get people to curtail smog-contributing activities such as driving or striking a match to the fireplace when pollution was first starting to build, rather than when it was already at high levels.

Overall, the division called for 18 voluntary action days and 31 mandatory action days out of the 120-day winter period. These actions included specific restrictions on solid fuel burning, as well as voluntary recommendations for individual travel and activities at home and in the community.

Over that period, the division received a total of 311 wood burning complaints and issued 55 citations for wood burning violations. In comparison, the division received 86 complaints and issued 16 citations during the same period in 2012-13.

Curbing wood smoke has become a key focus for policymakers as a way to curb Utah's pollution levels during the winter time.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has called for tighter restrictions on wood burning in non-attainment areas during the winter inversion season and asked state regulators to work on converting homes that use wood-burning as a sole source for heat.

On Tuesday, the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee endorsed a measure boosting funding to the division to pursue conversion of those homes and to implement an educational program aimed at detailing the problems associated with wood smoke.

HB154, sponsored by Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, called for the division to hire contractors or additional employees to beef up enforcement of the "no smoke" violations, but that provision was deleted in committee action.

"Utah officials clearly need more staff to enforce the state's existing bans on wood burning," says Matt Pacenza, policy director of HEAL Utah, a grass-roots environmental advocacy group. "It's disappointing that legislators stripped that provision from Rep. Arent's bill today."

Still, Pacenza said the bill contains key provisions in the fight against air pollution, including $1.8 million in one-time funding to pay for those conversions via grants and $250,000 for wood-burning education. Another $250,000 in ongoing funds from the general fund would pay for increased enforcement.

"By beefing up educational efforts and funding wood stove conversions, it promises to help clean up our wintertime pollution," he said.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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