Regulars and Shorts

The Air We Breathe

By Staff

Air quality crusades: 2015 roundup.
by Clare BoeRigter

Warmer weather combined with a lack of snow in the valley kept the worst inversions at bay this winter. And—out of sight, out of mind—the debates about improving air quality along the Wasatch Front just didn’t seem to get as heated this season.

But the legislature is still in session. Some air quality bills are on the table. And before one of Salt Lake’s greatest problems gets shelved for another eight months, let’s look at what got stirred up in this season’s air quality crusade.

Governor Herbert’s proposed wood burning ban got the season off to a good start. The proposal sought to instate a total solid wood (pellet and log stoves) burn ban from November 1-March 15, mostly for counties in northern Utah. Neither the Governor nor the Department of Air Quality expected their little proposal to raise such passionate pushback. Thousands of citizens concerned about the restrictiveness of the proposal turned out to the series of planned public hearings. Utahns for Responsible Burning organized opponents and called for alternative solutions like incentivizing EPA-certified and other low emission stoves, which, they pointed out, can cut emissions by up to 90%.

The DEQ’s attempt to grab what University of Utah Atmospheric Sciences Professor Jim Steen­burgh called the “low-hanging fruit” of wintertime inversions didn’t come to pass and it seemed as though Salt Lake, Provo and Cache Valley would continue their ignominious flaunting of EPA standards for PM 2.5 levels (we were given an “F” from the Lung Association for our high levels of PM 2.5). But wood burning stoves aren’t the only bad air culprit. According to Salt Lake City’s own data, area sources—homes, small businesses and buildings—make up 32% of the pollution we breathe, industry point sources contribute 11%, and vehicles make up a whopping 57%.

Enforcing stricter controls on these pollution sources could be another solution. Taking up that call is Utah House minority whip Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck (D) who, along with State Senator Gene Davis, sponsored S.B. 87, a bill that would repeal provisions prohibiting Utah’s Divis­ion of Air Quality from adopting clean air regulations that exceed federal standards. The bill passed through the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Committee with a favorable recommendation and has a chance of continuing to a second reading.

A similar bill, H.B. 226, sponsored by Repre­sen­tative Rebecca Edwards, would then authorize the Division of Air Quality to “create rules that are more stringent than corresponding federal regulations if additional regulations will provide added protection to public health and the environment.” Unfortunately, a little tampering by House rules chair Michael Noel (R) changed the critical wording “more stringent” to the less powerful “different.” But the bill has favorable recommendations and is going to a third reading.

Finally, SB 208, from sponsor Senator Luz Escamilla, would increase penalties against violators of the Air Conservation Act and authorize the DEQ to use some of the money collected on environmental programs. This bill has not yet passed the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee.

Whether you support the wood-burning ban or not, you probably agree that it’s time we tackled the issue of air pollution in Salt Lake—and in a big way. Contact your representatives and let them know the kind of environmental future you want for this state.

A quick refresher on what makes wintertime inversions a groaning point for anyone who spends their cold months Salt Lake City:

The dangerous building blocks for this sepia soup are PM 2.5 and PM 10, minute-sized noxious particulate pollution, trapped by thermal inversions. While PM 10 is known to lodge in the lungs, potentially scarring lung tissue, PM 2.5 can inhibit the lung’s ability to get oxygen into the bloodstream and clean away carbon dioxide, causing shortness of breath, asthma, heart disease and lung cancer, among other ailments. Ash from wood burning is an identified source for both PM 2.5 and PM 10.

This article was originally published on February 28, 2015.