Air pollution along the heavily urban Wasatch Front is getting worse, according to studies by the Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, the 1.3 million residents from Ogden to Provo are breathing an atmosphere that violates several federal clean air standards.
This a surprising, even shocking, report since many knowledgeable Utahns felt the state was making significant progress. Even more unsettling is the news that while air is as bad or worse in many other parts of the United States, the trend in most places seems to be toward improved conditions; yet the Wasatch Front is going in the opposite direction.The EPA figures for 1989 - the latest available - show that in many cases Wasatch Front pollution levels are higher than in 1987. Part of that may be due to population growth, the geography of urban valleys surrounded by mountains and even weather patterns.
In the Salt Lake-Ogden area, the highest ozone readings in 1989 were 0.15 parts per million (ppm) compared to 0.11 in 1987. The 1989 figures were some 25 percent above the legal limit. That's worse than New York City.
In the Salt Lake-Ogden area, particulates such as soot, dirt and smoke were 56 micrograms per cubic meter (ugm), 12 percent over the legal limit and worse than such industrial cities as Detroit and Philadelphia.
The Provo-Orem area exceeded carbon monoxide limits by 78 percent, with 16 ppm compared to legal limits of 9 ppm. Provo-Orem also was 4 percent over the limit for particulates.
Clearly, this is not a situation that can simply be ignored. As federal clean air laws get tougher, so will the penalties for violations, especially if the pollution trend is up rather than down. These penalties may include limits imposed on further economic development, embargoes against new construction, and cuts in federal grants for highways.
There is nothing Utahns can do about the geography or weather, but the time is coming when they must deal more vigorously with root causes of pollution, including heavy use of the automobile.
Utahns along the Wasatch Front must make better use of UTA buses. And the corridor obviously needs a light-rail system. Unlimited growth in the number of cars cannot continue indefinitely. Changes in lifestye are going to have to come, like it or not.
Industry must tighten its belt as well, particularly in efforts to reduce particulates. More use will have to be made of natural gas as a clean fuel. Efforts by major industries to reduce pollution can be expensive, but failure to take necessary steps could cost more in the long run.
The EPA report does not leave any room for complacency. Utah appears to be on a collision course with federal clean air standards and the state can only come out a loser in any such clash.
While Utah has taken many effective steps to reduce a variety of air pollution problems, much more remains to be accomplished.