SALT LAKE CITY — Depending on the slant of the sunlight and the pervasiveness of the haze, it may have looked like a fiery Armageddon over sections of the Salt Lake Valley early Friday morning.
But at that time, even though the Utah Division of Air Quality had already called a "no burn," day — meaning air pollution was creeping to ugly, harmful levels — Salt Lake County had not yet violated federal Clean Air Standards.
"We were below the standard at that point," said Dave McNeill, branch manager at the air quality division, "but it just looks bad. It is tiny particles that reflect the sun really easily, so it is difficult to see through it."
What McNeill is talking about is a chemical compound called sulfur dioxide, which reacts with ammonia in the atmosphere to create ammonia sulfate. The result is haze that obscures buildings from a distance or natural landmarks from afar — including mountains in the metropolitan areas of Utah and national parks scattered throughout the state.
A draft report on controlling that haze as it relates to the parks is up for public comment beginning early next week and a public hearing is set for Jan. 23 in Salt Lake City.
While its name is not glamorous, the goal of the regional SO2 emissions and milestones report is lofty: Clear the skies at Arches, reduce the haze at Canyonlands, Bryce, Zion and Capitol Reef national parks so the visitor experience is not compromised.
In contrast to pollution plans that are about protecting public health, this multi-state effort is all about aesthetics.
"This is totally about visibility and nothing about health," McNeill said, describing the components and requirements of the plan. "It is about people's view, about what people see."
Reducing haze as it relates to national parks has been part of the regulatory front for well more than a decade. Two of Utah's governors, Mike Leavitt and Jon Huntsman Jr., both chaired the Western Regional Air Partnership.
More than 25 industries or institutions in Utah report emission levels of sulfur dioxide and explain why there have been increases or how decreases have been achieved. In the case of a natural gas processing plant, reductions in emissions were achieved in excess of 20 percent from 2010 to 2011 because of large decreases in the amount of natural gas burned.
Yet, in the case of a cogeneration plant that burns waste coal, increases in emissions were at greater than 20 percent because of a corresponding increase in the amount of coal burned.
The plan makes no exceptions and count all sulfur dioxide emitters, including refineries along Beck Street in Salt Lake, where the dramatic images were on display Friday, and northern Davis County.
"But the main sources for sulfur dioxide in the parks is the power plants," McNeill said.
Over the years, McNeill said power plants in Utah have added expensive pollution controls to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions.
"I think those controls are some of the best in the country."
The report does show the "milestone" or goal for emissions levels in 2011 was 200,722 tons of sulfer dioxide.
Participating states reported 117,474 tons. Adjusted emissions averaged over a three year period showed the level at 130,935 tons.
Utah has until mid March to submit the report to the Environmental Protection Agency. McNeill said the federal agency has already signed off on the sulphur dioxide plan, but rejected in November the regional efforts when it came to nitrogen oxide emissions.
Multiple groups that include the National Parks Conservation Association urged the EPA to reject the haze plan and will likely weigh in during the comment period.
David Nimkin, the association's senior southwest regional director, said despite any pollution controls that may have been achieved over the last decade, the plan falls short because it is truly not a "regional" plan.
"Our understanding of this (plan) is that it was dependent on nine states participating and there are three," Nimkin said. "Our belief is that it is not sufficient in scope among those three states given that regional haze transcends those standards...If you believe in the intrinsic value of these parks, they need to be protected."
Utah joins New Mexico and Wyoming in the effort, but others states such as Arizona and Oregon have since left the program and are implementing their own standards.
McNeill said he believes that overall, visibility has improved around the parks because emissions have been reduced in power plants from what they were a decade ago. He concedes that new technology coming on may make requirements tougher for nitrous oxide someday, but he said those pollutants don't contribute to haze.
What is harder to control, he said, is wildfire pollution.
"We can clean up the air on those cleanest days, but the problem is the biggest source of haze in the parks is forest fires."