Salt Lake City – People are literally dropping over dead in the streets along the Wasatch Front from Utah’s absolutely debilitating and deadly air pollution crisis. If that sounds a little harsh, it probably isn’t, and as a matter of fact, it is in essence the position of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE), a group of over 300 medical doctors who last year declared an air-pollution-related public health emergency on Capitol Hill.
The crisis has been so severe in fact, that it drew a crowd of approximately 5,000 motivated, and downright outraged citizens to the State Capitol on Jan. 25th in what has now gone down in the books as the largest air-pollution-specific protest in U.S. history.
This year’s “red air” pollution streak has once again slotted several prominent Utah cities amongst places 1 through 5 on the EPA’s air quality index. The agency’s website AirNow.gov ranks America’s most dangerously polluted cities, and Salt Lake, Ogden, Provo, and Logan have often found themselves in a neck-and-neck competition, battling for which city will hold the dubious distinction of America’s most air polluted city on any given day.
The rally, packed with enthusiastic and angry citizens was spearheaded by Dr. Brian Moench, Founder and President of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE), and Carl Ingwell, Founder of the activist group Utah Clean Air Now (UCAN). Moench led the charge and pumped up the crowd between speakers, while longtime and retired KSL news anchor Dick Nourse also took turns emceeing the event.
Assisting with the organization and execution of the rally was also a Beehive State swarm of other environmental groups including Utah Moms for Clean Air, HEAL Utah, the Sierra Club, and the Facebook groups Communities for Clean Air, and Utah CleanAir.
So just what is it that has brought Utah’s hampering and seemingly never-ending air pollution conundrum to such a pressurized head this year? Well for one, Utah Governor Gary Herbert, along with many of his Republican cronies in the state legislature, continues to reiterate the notion that Utah’s air quality has actually been improving over the last decade when the opposite seems to be true. Secondly, Governor Herbert’s own DEQ Air Quality Board, assigned the undeniable task of protecting the public from harmful air pollution, has handed out a massive permit increase to Kennecott Utah Copper, the single largest source of air pollution in the state, in addition to doling out expansions for Tesoro and Holly oil refineries.
To add fuel to the fire in the aforementioned pollution hall-pass situation, it has also become more widely known to the public in the past year that the Air Quality Board is currently being chaired by Stephen Sands II of, yep, you guessed it, Kennecott Utah Copper. This seems obviously to be a blatant example of the ‘fox guarding the henhouse.’ It should additionally be noted in these same regards that Karma Thomson of the Tesoro oil refinery also holds a seat on the nine person Air Quality Board, adding insult to injury for those opposed to what they say is a DAQ riddled with corruption.
The source polluter shenanigans mentioned above are not the only industrial situations in question when it comes to the “Beehive State”. The battle surrounding the Stericycle medical waste incineration plant has drawn national attention, and even famed environmental activist and consumer advocate Erin Brockovich has signed onto the cause of shutting the old waste burner down.
To add to the medical waste madness, another issue in the state of Utah has groups like Peaceful Uprising and Utah Tar Sands Resistance up in arms. The Tavaputs and Colorado Plateaus are currently under assault from America’s first approved commercial tar sands mining permits, and these same groups point out that mining and refining carbon-loaded bitumen crude from the will-be-stripped wilderness areas in Eastern Utah will add much more pollution to an already crippled airshed. It will also almost certainly contribute substances like deadly uranium into Utah’s legendarily toxic environment.
Despite the aforementioned myriad environmental battles, as well as countless others including fracking and nuclear waste, the largest point of concern in the overall saga may be the looming EPA mandate, hammered down on Utah several years back, that now demands the state to come into compliance with federal air quality standards.
Last month, after much anticipation and scrutiny from groups like HEAL Utah, the Department of Air Quality released, voted on, and passed their SIP (State Implementation Plan) in an effort to meet federal standards, lest the EPA come in with an iron hand of enforcement. The problem is that much time has already been squandered since the EPA first mandated Utah’s compliance, and now the state is faced with a hard deadline in 2019.
A glaring problem with the DAQ plan is that it does not even begin to implement many of the strongest pollution reduction measures until 2019 when the deadline will already be upon Utah, which is why critics of the SIP like HEAL Utah’s Matt Pacenza say that the current plan should be scrapped altogether to make way for a faster moving, more aggressive plan.
These are just a few of the many problems facing the ‘Land of Zion’ when it comes to breathing clean and healthy air. Many of these micro-crisis have been escalating for years, but the air has become so dangerous and contaminated over the last several years along the Wasatch Front that hundreds of families have either been forced to move, or are contemplating a move, and whole Facebook pages and forums have been set up to address these sad cases specifically.
When Utah’s air is bad, it is really bad, and children are often kept in from recess for days or even weeks on end when PM 2.5 particulate levels are high. This is just one ridiculous example of how unlivable things have become in the state of Utah — a state that is considered by many to be among the most beautiful and unique places on earth.