Clearing the Air in Utah

Clearing the Air in Utah

By Libby Coleman


Because kids can’t breathe — and so the environment matters.

By Libby Coleman

The state capitol in Salt Lake City is roaring. Activists of all ages, even state legislators with squalling babies, have braved a Saturday snowstorm to gather downtown in the imposing and domed Romanesque building. They’re here to protest Utah’s dirty air. “I need to breathe,” a toddling girl’s sign reads in scribbled marker. The issue is particularly pertinent today. We’re caught in an inversion — cold air has trapped dirty smog in the valley where a million people live, causing tightness in the chest with each breath.

Because so many districts are affected, clean air is becoming the PC way to talk about climate change in Utah. The two issues overlap: Eliminating most of the fine particulate matter in dirty air (the gross stuff, so to speak) would come about by lowering greenhouse gas emissions and reducing other pollutants, which in turn would decrease the state’s contribution to climate change. So, it’s all good — cleaner air would mean Utah is doing its small bit to reduce the rate at which our planet warms.

I think it’s ridiculous that the [Utah] government thinks that porn is more of a health crisis than our air quality.

Utah citizen Caroline Lewis

But that term — climate change — remains politically fraught. It’s not the good people of Utah who are denying climate change is occurring; according to a 2015 study, some 80 percent of respondents in the state believe the warming trend is real. It’s the state’s political leaders who remain cautious about acknowledging what seems glaringly obvious to many. As far as affirming that lousy air quality “is the result of climate change,” says Gary Edwards, the executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, “[state legislators] are not at that point.”


Whether pols dodge the dreaded term or not, momentum is building to scrub Utah’s air  — and mostly with bipartisan support. In this year’s legislative session, political leaders introduced multiple bills that range from encouraging drivers to consider smog ratings when buying a vehicle to limiting emissions of fine particulate matter. And the legislature approved $1.3 million for new air-quality sensors, plus more, including funds for cleaner public transportation and the creation of an Air Quality Policy Advisory Board. There’s also past progress: “The Utah legislature passed more clean-air legislation in 2014 than in the previous 100 years combined,” Republican State Senator Todd Weiler says. Aroused citizens have formed groups like Utah Moms for Clean Air — its about page explains that members intend to harness “the power of moms to clean up Utah’s dirty air.” Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Utah and other educational institutions are studying the science behind the contentious issue. “My constituents and everyone’s are forced to breathe the dirty air,” Weiler says. “That’s something you can measure. Nobody’s denying we have bad air days.”

Still, not everyone feels that government is moving fast enough when it comes to doing something about it. Last year, antiporn advocates saw a victory. A state resolution designated it a public health crisis. “I think it’s ridiculous that the government thinks that porn is more of a health crisis than our air quality,” Caroline Lewis, a Utahn who attended the protest on the state capitol, tells OZY.

In Utah, the biggest air polluters are vehicles, State House Representative Patrice Arent says. According to researchers from USC and Harvard, air pollution can be linked to heart attacks, strokes and irregular heart rhythms. And Dr. Brian Moench of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment notes that 1,000 to 2,000 Utahns die prematurely every year because of air pollution. 

The problem has become so chronic that some residents of Salt Lake City determine their daily routine based on air quality. University of Utah researcher Dr. Logan Mitchell checks the smog status each morning before deciding whether to ride his bike to work, take the bus or telecommute.

The EPA has found multiple Utah counties in violation of federal standards for air quality. So who should be on the cleanup crew? Why, the Trump administration, of course, says an editorial in the Salt Lake City Tribune. What cleanup? asks Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA. The recently confirmed environmental chief might go toe-to-toe with California over the state’s plan to reduce auto emissions.

That may not sit well with Utah’s residents, many of whom see dirty air as a personal threat and are looking for solutions. For inspiration, smog busters in the Beehive State could peer into the brown cloud shrouding China, where some of the greatest climate-change wins have piggybacked on clean-air activism, not abstract notions of planetary health, Mitchell speculates. “Air quality is the reason” China pledged to participate in the Paris Agreement, the climate accord that Obama signed in December 2015, Mitchell says. “Their citizens are demanding it. They have crazy dirty air, and they realize they’re killing their citizens.”

Back in Utah, the rhetoric that may work best brings children into the equation. State Senator Jim Dabakis attended the clean-air rally at the state capitol wearing a suit. He became fiery when asked what he was going to do — wheeze, wheeze — about the problem. Few like it when a politician answers a question with a question, especially a rhetorical one. Nevertheless, Dabakis’ most forceful response landed hard: “If you knew your own child was being poisoned, how high a priority would that be?”