Owning Utah’s Air Quality Problem

When Ted Wilson was Salt Lake City mayor in the 1980s, he liked to take morning jogs above the city’s Avenues district to Twin Peaks.

 

“During the winter inversions, I could break out of the zone of dirty air near the peaks,” he reflects. “I could stand with clear air from my waist up, but hardly be able to see my feet. The inversion was nearly that pronounced.”

In those days, Utahns were only becoming aware of air quality hazards like particulate matter and the Environmental Protection Agency’s PM10 standard for solid and liquid particles of air pollution. “We didn’t know anything about PM2.5, the current standard,” Wilson continues. “We are much wiser today.”

Indeed, Utahns have become increasingly smarter and demanding when it comes to the state’s air quality problems and the need to reduce the murk that engulfs the Wasatch Front, Cache Valley and the Uintah Basin during wintertime atmospheric inversions, when cold, dirty air gets trapped below warmer and cleaner air.

As executive director of the Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR), an organization created by Gov. Gary Herbert in 2012 and converted to a public-private partnership in 2013, Wilson hopes public demand for a response to Utah’s air quality issues will translate into public ownership of the problem.

“There is a lot of criticism about air pollution from industry, but according to the Utah Division of Air Quality, industry only contributes about 11 percent of the problem,” he says. “Obviously, we can’t take away our industries, but we should encourage them to upgrade their air quality efforts.”

In reality, 57 percent of the air pollution comes from cars, trucks and buses on the road, especially those that are left idling, while the other 32 percent comes from area sources like homes and buildings. Wilsons says he’s no scientist, but he believes if the general public owns the air quality problem, the muck that pollutes our air could be cut in half within eight to 10 years.

“That would be absolutely huge,” he says. “People need to be able to live, work and vacation in this beautiful state and know the air is good and that they won’t get sick from it. I always feel bad during the Sundance Film Festival and the Outdoor Retailer Winter Market because we have these horrible air inversions every year during those events. I don’t know what our visitors are telling people about Utah’s air quality when they go home, but it can’t be good.”

To help encourage public ownership of the air quality problem, UCAIR has been zealous in three areas: educating the public, supporting air quality improvements through grants and loans and serving as a catalyst for change. “We’re not a public policy organization,” says Wilson. “Our focus is mainly on the education elements to help the public personally own the air quality problem.”

In 2013 UCAIR gave $350,000 in grants to 13 organizations that are working on Utah air quality issues. For example, Breathe Utah received a grant for its education project focused on log burning, which increases public awareness about the detrimental impact of log burning during inversions. The project encourages the public to convert to clean burning fuels like natural gas. The Utah Transit Authority received a grant to fund its free passes program, which gives away transit passes during inversions and motivates people to ride public transit on bad air days. Provo also received a grant for an intergovernmental tool kit the city is developing to engage other communities in Utah County to join its own version of the UCAIR partnership.

A strong partnership between Envision Utah and UCAIR has developed and has convinced the Legislature to put up $500,000 for a TV, radio and billboard campaign called “Let’s Clear the Air,” which highlights information and resources available to the public to help improve Utah’s air quality.

“Our job is to address the 52 percent, the air quality issues that come from automobile and truck fumes, and the other 32 percent, that represents air pollution from area sources. Building emissions are a big contributor to air pollution,” Wilson says.

He believes 2014 could be a landmark year for change. The political environment is right, the public is engaged, and major political leaders are putting their efforts into the problem. “I thought Gov. Herbert’s remarks in his State of the State address indicated great concern on his part and a willingness to move ahead,” he says. “And I’ve seen more people at the legislative level join this cause than I ever thought possible. The majority of the Legislature is coming to understand the air quality problem.”

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker has made a special effort to move the city forward on air quality issues, notes Wilson, and Salt Lake, Weber and Utah Counties are also engaged in the problem. “I am really encouraged by what is happening,” he says. “We have reached a pinnacle where government is willing and our political leaders are staking their political futures on the air quality issue. We have finally awakened to something we should have been aware of long ago. I am personally committed, as a former mayor and as a citizen, to own this problem.”

UCAIR meets monthly, and the organization welcomes any businesses, public organizations or government entities that would like to join. Current partners include Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Utah County, Uintah County, the Wasatch Front Regional Council, Envision Utah, EDCUtah and the State of Utah. Meetings often involve brainstorming sessions, where members talk about what they are doing regarding air quality and vet their ideas before the group.

Wilson says he’s seen what Utahns can do when faced with a challenge and believes the public can own the air quality problem and come together just as they did in 1983, when an army of 10,000 sandbaggers lined State Street with sand bags to protect businesses from the torrent of water pouring out of City Creek. “I know we can respond to the air quality problem,” he says. “To me, this is an exciting time and the opportunity is right to change.”

He is quick to note that people don’t have to completely change their lifestyles to execute change. “If you drive to work every day, take transit one day a week,” he suggests. “If you drive your child to school in the morning, why not grab the neighbor kids, too, and have them ride along with you? Simple, marginal things will have a great effect when a lot of people are involved. That’s our theory. The only way we are going to solve Utah’s air quality is for everyone to pitch in.”