Tom Smart, Deseret News
An inversion of smog hangs over the valley in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Just as a December inversion pushes murky air to the valley bottom, the issue of air quality is again top of mind, and through the haze, it’s good to see some actionable attention being paid to the problem.

Gov. Gary Herbert’s proposed 2014 budget calls for $17 million to be invested in research and pollution mitigation projects. Salt Lake City government is pushing a new master plan that would make more mass transit options available to more people to reduce automobile emissions. And at the University of Utah and Brigham Young University, scientists are pursuing important research on just what ingredients contribute to the airborne muck that most Utahns now consider a serious problem that’s getting worse.

In fact, a December survey conducted by the non-profit Envision Utah identified bad air as the single most negative influence on quality of life. The polling also revealed that a large majority of residents are willing to take personal action to cut down on emissions.

This all adds up to the kind of activism that is historically necessary to effectively address such a complex and entrenched problem. A key development is the state’s willingness to invest money into research. Fixing the problem isn’t possible if there is uncertainty as to what exactly is causing it.

We know that automobile emissions are a big factor, but the data is not clear on exactly how big. Researchers at BYU and the U of U are finding that the majority of fine particulate pollution is not necessarily the result of tailpipe emissions, but may be particles catalyzed by interaction with precursor chemicals. Scientists will try to determine just what those chemicals are and where they come from, which will enable a more targeted regulatory attack.

One early finding from the research suggests wood burning might be a bigger culprit than previously believed. During extreme inversions, wood burning is banned, but that prohibition needs to be more strictly enforced.

The science will most certainly confirm that vehicle emissions will have to be significantly curtailed if there are to be improvements in air quality. The Salt Lake City Council’s proposed “Transit Master Plan” contemplates having at least two mass transit stops within a quarter mile of each resident’s home and place of work. That’s an ambitious goal, but one worthy of the $350,000 the city and the Utah Transit Authority will spend to study its feasibility.

Taken as a whole, these developments may mark a turning point at which policy makers begin devoting their energies to fixing the problem instead of debating how bad it is. If so, it is a trend in the right direction.

We suggest policy makers statewide also focus on methods in use around the world that provide people incentives to use their automobiles less or to make them more efficient. These include congestion pricing, in which all highway drivers pay tolls that change depending on traffic congestion, and the use of technology that rapidly heats up catalytic converters, reducing the time they operate inefficiently when a vehicle is started.

The two biggest contributors to the Wasatch Front air pollution problem are population growth and the unusual topography of mountain valleys. The population will continue to grow, and the mountains aren’t going anywhere. And neither will the occasional plague of nasty air until efforts like these most recently undertaken continue in force and are institutionalized as a matter of ongoing policy.