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Utah's pollution problem: Small steps making positive impact for air quality

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 1:12 p.m. MDT

An inversion of smog hangs over the Salt Lake Valley last December. Many groups and people are working to clean up the air throughout Utah. (Tom Smart, Chopper 5, Deseret News) An inversion of smog hangs over the Salt Lake Valley last December. Many groups and people are working to clean up the air throughout Utah. (Tom Smart, Chopper 5, Deseret News)

Forbes Magazine recently labeled Utah one of the country's most toxic states — a designation that could create concern about the health of residents and have negative repercussions on the state's economic growth.

"Businesses that think about moving to Utah look at our national beauty and in order to do that they need to be able to see it," said Marty Carpenter, spokesman for the Salt Lake Chamber.

However, Carpenter was also confident that anyone who is seriously considering coming to Utah will see that the label does not match the state's reality.

Forbes failed to mention an increasing concern for the environment in Utah and the progress Utah citizens have made in the last few years.

Since 2007, small time players have launched big time campaigns to raise awareness about Utah's air quality issues. Cherise Udell and Dr. Brian Moench are two Utah residents that are now the face of a couple of the largest clean air campaigns in Utah. Udell, founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air, worked with legislators such as Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake, and Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, to pass bills that focus on stopping idling school buses.

"In the last couple years since we started the group, the awareness has definitely increased," said Udell. "Look at the number of news articles and you will see a huge spike since the organizations have started."

Moench, president of Physicians for a Healthy Environment, got involved in the issue after becoming fed up by inversion, especially a rather harsh inversion period in 2007. He and eight or nine other physicians started to read medical literature about effects of pollution on the human body. Since the organization's inception, Moench has noticed that fewer people are allowing their cars to idle and has been told by moms that idling at school pick-up and drop-off points is decreasing.

Idling school buses and cars may not seem like much, but according to Utah's Division of Air Quality, 38 percent of Utah's pollution problems come from cars and trucks.

"We want idling to become a social faux pas," said Udell, "the way throwing trash out your window has become."

To help with vehicle emissions, Utah has also become a more bike-friendly state. Salt Lake City was given a bronze-level award as a bicycle community by the League of American Bicyclists in 2007, and was upgraded to the silver level in 2010.

"The gold level award is in the mayor's initiative," said Becka Roolf, bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, "And personally I'm not going to be satisfied at stopping at gold, I'm going for platinum."

Utah's bad air is also caused by three other major categories. Large industrial contributers are 28 percent of the problem, with commercial use following in close second at 26 percent. The last 8 percent comes from household pollutions.

According to Arden Pope, professor at Brigham Young University and one of the world's leading experts in small particulate pollution and its health effects, the pollution problem hasn't increased alongside the population increase the state has experienced in the last couple of years. And that's a victory of sorts.

"We haven't gotten worse, while the numbers of cars on the road, the miles driven and the population have grown," said Pope.

Utah citizens and industries alike have made noticeable impacts to Utah's air quality since 2007. Public officials started clean air initiatives, such as the Clear The Air Challenge issued by Gov. Gary Herbert, Mayor Ralph Becker and Mayor Peter Corroon. The challenge encourages travelers of all ages to use travelwise strategies. Car-pooling, public transit and bike riding have all been deemed as travelwise ways to get around. The challenge has already saved more than 2 million pounds of vehicle emissions and more than 59,000 gallons of gas.

Utah Transit Authority has 141,000 regular passengers on weekdays and 75 percent of those passengers are "choice riders," according to a passenger survey UTA conducts each year. Choice riders are people who have alternative forms of transportation but choose to ride public transit. Since January 2010, UTA has seen a 12 percent increase in ridership.

"The most common reason people ride is to save the environment," said UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter.

UTA has also made huge strides with new requirements for their 2010 buses, which will be more environmentally friendly than automobiles manufactured in the 1990s. The whole fleet will be completely switched over to the new buses by 2015, which will reduce fleet emissions by 80 percent. "The key is to get people out of single-occupant vehicles. Car pooling can cut emissions by 75 percent," said Carpenter, "A car with one person in it lets one pound of greenhouse gas per passenger mile, whereas a van full of people lets 1.5 pounds of green house gas per passenger mile."

Another huge concern among those who are apprehensive about Utah's air quality is Kennecott's contribution to Utah's pollution problem. The mine's owners are hoping to extend the mine's life out to at least 2028, which has some Utahns worried about its effect on air quality. But spokeswoman Jana Kettering said the mine has made significant changes in the last couple of years to cut back on emissions and help air quality.

The industry scene has painted pictures of gloomy inversion days since the industrial revolution in the 19th century; however, the modern day industry is trying to change that reputation by following the fast-paced trail of greener technology.

The copper mine proposed plans in December that would dramatically reduce air emissions in the valley by 2014. The upgrade includes converting the majority of the onsite coal-fired power plant's boilers to a combined-cycle natural gas operation. With this conversion, the mine would generate additional power while nearly doubling the efficiency rating.

According to the Department of Environmental Quality's 2008 statewide air emissions inventory, Kennecott's combined emission contribution was responsible for 6 percent of small particulate matter, which is the air pollutant that most commonly affects health.

"Kennecott's emissions represent a small percentage of the valley's air quality problem," said Rio Tinto's Kettering. "We've shown as an industry that we care about making positive change."

Although Utah has seen improvements within the last couple years vehicle emissions continue to remain the biggest problem.

"The largest single source here in the Salt Lake valley is automobiles," said Bryce Bird, planning branch manager with the Utah Division of Air Quality. "Anything to limit driving helps."

To learn more about the cleaning of Utah's air, visit the Mayor's Office initiative website at www.slcgov.com/mayor/initiatives/.

Contributing: Lois M. Collins

Email: kcox@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company