Better UTAH Beat Episode 47 – May 7, 2013

New numbers released last week by the Department of Environmental Quality don’t bode well for cleaning up our winter inversions. According to a report by the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah County–which repeatedly found itself with the country’s worst air this past winter–needs to cut its wintertime pollution by an additional 20 percent to meet even the lax standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Salt Lake County doesn’t fair much better. Along with surrounding counties Davis, Weber, Tooele and Box Elder, the Salt Lake area needs to reduce pollution by 10 percent more.

At stake is the tiny particles of pollution that you can see in the air during our dreadful winter inversions. They’re called PM2.5, and they come from the exhaust of cars, heavy machinery, and factories.

So, just how much PM2.5 do we need to eliminate from our air? Provo needs to reduce its daily pollution output by 10 tons. The Salt Lake area needs to reduce theirs by 22 tons. That’s the equivalent of the weight of just over 30 volkswagen beetles. Not the exhaust produced by 30 beetles, but if 30 beetles were somehow vaporized, dispersed into the air, and then breathed in by each of us, every single day.

It’s going to require large-scale, serious behavioral changes to reduce that much pollution. As part of that behavioral change, Governor Herbert has declared May as Clean Air Month. The Salt Lake Tribune reported on three of the Governor’s suggestions made during the press conference he held last week to make the announcement.

1) Buying new gas cans.

2) Using low pollution household paint.

3) Switching out your gas mower for an electric one.

So much for large scale changes.

University of Utah Professor Jim Steenburg, who runs the blog Wasatch Weather Weenies, has criticized this fixation on the small stuff. “We need to stop sweating the small stuff,” he says. In other words, although Herbert is right that our gas cans and lawnmowers should be more efficient, we need to think much, much bigger.

But the truth is that the Governor, despite his naivety, isn’t all wrong. Part of the responsibility for keeping the air clean does fall on ordinary citizens.

Steenburg argues that increased use and access to mass transit is likely one of the best ways to reduce the air pollution. And when we do drive, it’s going to take driving cleaner, smarter cars–and driving them less often. Idling on cold mornings will need to go the way of infants riding in front seats. But consumer behavior is just one piece of the whole puzzle. Industry, which produces a disproportionately greater amount of pollution than that caused by regular Utahns, must also be held responsible for reducing pollution levels in the Northern Valleys.

The Governor is asking big business polluters to voluntarily reduce their emissions, likely out of fear that tougher emission standards could produce ill-effects for Utah’s economy. But bad air already has a bad effect on our economy. Although there doesn’t appear to be any comprehensive studies on the effect of poor air quality in Utah, there are anecdotes that suggest it affects businesses–from getting them to relocate here in the first place, to ensuring employees remain healthy and able to work. A California study from 2008 found the cost of bad air there to be in the billions. Those costs came from increases in health care, work absenteeism, and missed school days.

The health of Utahns should be reason enough to get our air quality under control, but if we can’t do it for health, we should at least do it for fiscal responsibility. If Utah is going to remain the best managed state in the Union, we need to do a better job of managing our air, too.

This is Maryann Martindale with this week’s edition of the Better UTAH Beat.

Have a great week, and remember, together, we can make a better Utah.

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