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A Dirty Energy Emancipation Proclamation: In Utah?

On January 25th, one of the largest and most significant environmental protests in years took place in the most unlikely of places – Salt Lake City, Utah.

Retired KSL News anchor Dick Nourse. (Screen grab via EnviroNews)

On January 25th, away from the spotlight of Washington, DC, The New York Times and even MSNBC, one of the largest, and most significant environmental protests in years took place in the most unlikely of places – Salt Lake City, Utah. Wait, did I really say, Salt – Mitt Romney, Mike Lee – Lake – Mormon Church, Prop. 8, Glenn Beck – City? Exactly. Here’s how that happened and why.

Utah is home to unique, spectacular natural beauty – from snowcapped peaks to awe-inspiring national parks with majestic red-rock monoliths and Colorado Plateau canyons. Utah is also often labeled the most conservative state in the country, where acceptance of political authority is wedded to acquiescence to paternalistic religious
authority, inducing an aversion to protesting or challenging the status quo. For years, Utah’s legislature, governor, and Congressional delegation have been staunchly pro-business, chest thumping in their antipathy toward federal regulation of any kind, reliable cheerleaders for the fossil fuel industry, and predictably annoyed by, if not mocking of, anyone suggesting the environment needs protection.

In the winter, however, Utah’s darker personality comes out of the closet. The heavily urbanized areas of the state perennially rank in the top ten worst cities in the country for acute spikes in air pollution. Typical winters are spent with much of the time under “inversion” circumstances, where cold air gets trapped near the floor of our high mountain valleys (where most of our population lives), and warm air above acts like an atmospheric lid, preventing the dispersion of pollution. For much of the last two winters, “beautiful” Salt Lake City has felt more like the fictional Mordor from the Lord of the Rings, or even worse, a real live Beijing, China, than it has the iconic, proud city built by Mormon pioneers. When inversions set up, children are kept indoors during recess, elderly are advised not to venture outdoors, hospital beds fill up, emergency rooms become crowded and mortality rates rise.

Beyond the meteorologic trigger of our inversions, many of the usual cast of characters play a role in our pollution – sprawl instead of real urban planning, insufficient mass transit, auto exhaust, heavy industry like oil refineries and mining and home heating, especially wood burning.

Virtually unrecognized by the media, and unacknowledged by state government, has been the role of the explosion of oil and gas drilling in the Uinta Basin about 180 miles east of Salt Lake City. Fugitive emissions inherent in oil and gas drilling have created a severe air pollution problem in Vernal, the main Utah town in the Uinta Basin. In the winter, Vernal has particulate pollution as high as Salt Lake City but can also have ozone higher even than Los Angeles – a double whammy unique to Vernal. And now our “dirty energy” governor is heavily promoting extreme fossil fuels in Utah – the lower 48 states’ primary deposits of oil shale and tar sands. I suppose those glamorous photos of the Alberta Tar Sands eco-nightmare are just too alluring for our governor to pass up. Tar sands and oil shale would seal a fate for Salt Lake City of perpetual, doomsday air pollution.

But a funny thing happened on the way to continued passivity, martyrdom, and pollution ignominy. Sleeping giants awoke by the thousands. People from all of Utah’s main cities decided they were, “sick – literally – and tired” of Utah’s dirty air. They were also sick and tired of lip service by legislators and the governor. And on Saturday, Jan. 25th, that frustration reached critical mass. Almost 5,000 people poured onto the state Capitol grounds spurred by the theme, “Clean Air, No Excuses.”

They came armed with a petition that demanded reforms in transportation, real mass transit, and a moratorium on freeways. It demanded that one of the last standing medical waste incinerators, Stericycle, in the heart of the suburbs, be shut down, and that open burning of any type, by businesses, agriculture or individuals be prohibited. For our largest industrial polluters, the Rio Tinto/Kennecott copper mine and five oil refineries, it demanded maximum pollution controls and no more expansions, and air quality standards stricter than the EPA’s. Perhaps most significantly, it demanded an end to the state government’s push to make Utah the dirty energy capitol of the West, and no permitting of oil shale and tar sands. It was a “dirty energy emancipation proclamation.”

Now you can imagine Bill McKibben organizing this in Washington, DC, with Jim Hansen, Naomi Klein, and Daryl Hannah. But in little ol’ Utah with no celebrities, not even our own Robert Redford, to lend any star power? This was Utah’s “Rosa Parks” moment for air pollution.

For those of us who organized this rally and worried about whether it would indeed become the blockbuster event we had hoped, we were literally overcome looking out from the Capitol steps to see thousands of Utah parents, grandparents, patients, doctors, athletes, children and students on trains, buses, in car pools, on bicycles and on foot marching up the hill to the Capitol building. It was an unforgettable moment of inspiration to see so many diverse groups join together in wanting to make our community a better place to live. Several hundred signs showed the work of creative geniuses: they ranged from “Utah’s Air: 50 shades of gray.” to “Smog Lake City.” About 1,000 people wore masks, some for the symbolism, and some out of desperation to do anything to protect themselves and their children.

For most of them, like our Master of Ceremonies Dick Nourse, a beloved retired local TV news anchor, this was their first experience formally “protesting” anything. Their protest represented a new degree of courage and determination to make their government function as it was intended – and also an abiding hope, as difficult and intractable as it may seem, that this problem can indeed be solved.

Emotions ran high, with widespread frustration, disappointment, and sadness for our beloved community, which should be a source of pride in so many other ways, but has become so visibly degraded and spoiled. Thousands were angry for being denied their most fundamental right – the right to breathe clean air – and angry at many of Utah’s leaders for failing in their most important obligation. They said they are tired of a state government detached, paralyzed, or immune to the issue, unable or unwilling to offer anything but token gestures. They demanded not just clean air, but clean energy and a clean future.

Thousands came because they have a far greater understanding of the issue and more vision than all of our statewide politicians. This was one of Utah’s finest moments. It may very well be recognized as a watershed event, the shining of a light at the end of a long dark tunnel drilled by a feckless state government, fossil fuel forces, and cultural stagnation. Utah citizens have finally created a golden opportunity to change the literal “atmosphere” of our beautiful state.

It’s been a week since the rally. Has anything changed yet? Utah has not become a western oasis of Massachusetts liberalism. But 20,000 citizen activists are ready to pounce on the slightest move of any legislators that might undermine our momentum. Two days ago during his state of the state speech, Gov. Gary Herbert announced numerous nibbles at our air pollution problem, and they included asking our Air Quality Board to ban wood burning throughout the winter inversion season. That may not sound like much to you, but that is unprecedented throughout the country, unthinkable from a state government still ideologically buried in the 19th century wild wild West.

Thousands of Utahans are now demanding clean air, clean energy, and a clean future. If it can happen in Utah, it can happen anywhere.

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