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Clearing the air: That air you’re breathing may be slowly killing you

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There is no single silver bullet that will solve the problem. Everything we do as a society contributes to our air pollution problem. – Bryce Bird, Utah’s director of air quality

Editor's note: This report is part one of a two-part series.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has one of the worst air pollution problems in the country and the impacts are startling: The pollution is killing people.

It is sending families and individuals to hospital emergency rooms. It is contributing to strokes and heart attacks. Both young and old suffer asthma at greater rates in dirty air areas, and those with respiratory diseases are left wheezing and coughing, fighting a tightening in their lungs.

Business interests, often cited as a check against strict air quality standards, can actually feel the brunt of pollution as an economy slayer, as green businesses are chased away and local businesses lose out on potential employees and their families who don't want to live under the smothering canopy of a wintertime inversion or endure the blanket of stifling summer ozone.

Within the past four years, several counties in Utah became reluctant members of the dirty air club, taking their spots among the worst of the worst in the country when it comes to air quality and short-term pollution. On average, state air quality regulators insist that Utah's air quality is far from the worst, but when it does get bad, it's very bad.

On those days, the filthy air of highly populated areas like metropolitan New York City or Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area is surpassed on the Wasatch Front, as demonstrated in 2010 when the northern part of the state was locked in the grips of an unrelenting inversion and the EPA said the air here was the most polluted in the country.

Health studies during the past two decades have demonstrated the link between exposure to air pollutants and dangerous consequences to health. Utah County, in fact, was an early test tube of the correlation, where a Brigham Young University professor studied the link between a steel mill closure, improvement in children's respiratory health, and subsequent higher hospitalization rates — a doubling — when the mill re-opened. That research by Arden Pope would later go on to lay the foundation for the federal agency's air quality standards in the 1990s.

Three national studies earlier this year have brought greater urgency to the problem, revealing that even short-term exposure to levels of pollution considered "safe" by federal standards bring immediate risks of heart attack and stroke.

With Utah fast approaching a deadline to submit a plan to come into federal compliance, a disturbing reality has emerged: Even making the standard will not bring clean air to Utah, and it will continue to reach into nearly every aspect of daily life.

It leaves Utahns with a tough choice. Find the motivation to make sweeping changes, or acknowledge the cost and live with the consequences of breathing dirty air.

"There is no single silver bullet that will solve the problem," Bryce Bird, Utah's director of air quality, said.

"Everything we do as a society contributes to our air pollutionproblem — heating our homes, heating our hot water, hair spray,deodorant; the driving component is very large. Each car, taken alone,is small. But all together they are a large part of the problem."

The price of inaction is high:

• A 10-year study in the Boston area that followed nearly 20,000 women ages 70 to 81 found that those who breathed in dirtier air longer had a two-year head start in the decline of mental acuity, zapping the ability to carry out a plan or make a strategy.

• Air pollution has been linked to extended bouts of depression, and the National Institute of Health reports that increased levels of some air pollutants are accompanied by an increase in psychiatric admissions and emergency calls.

• Americans are suffering from asthma in record numbers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with nearly one in 10 children and one in 12 adults afflicted. In areas of Utah where air quality is the poorest, there are higher hospitalization rates for those suffering asthma.

An estimated 65,000 children in Utah suffer from asthma, according to the health department, and a recent analysis it conducted in tandem with the National Weather Service shows that the longer a wintertime inversion lasts, the higher likelihood exists that it will result in a trip to a hospital emergency room for asthma sufferers.

• A group of Utah physicians said the unhealthy air is a crisis that kills as many as 2,000 people along the Wasatch Front each year, and shaves two years off of a person's life.

Utah's air quality regulators are up against a Dec. 14 deadline to submit their plan to the federal government on reducing the tiniest particles of air pollution, or PM2.5. A draft is expected to be presented to the air quality board members next month.

Three areas in Utah that are "non-attainment" for compliance with federal clean air standards are among 32 in the country that have not been able to bring fine particulate pollution under control.

Within those three areas are the valley portion of Utah County, all of Salt Lake and Davis counties, the valley portion of Weber County, the eastern edge of Tooele County, the southeastern portion of Box Elder County and the valley portion of Cache County.

To come into compliance and meet with EPA's approval, an entire suite of changes to pollutant-emitting sources is being contemplated in the impacted areas, and Utah regulators stress that everything is a target.

"Nothing is off the table, and it is a big table," said Dave McNeill, manager of the Division of Air Quality's Planning Branch.

Clearing the air

So what would it take to clear the dirty air along the Wasatch Front?

The mountains and the Great Salt Lake are two big topographical players in a minuet that helps to foster the air pollution problem.

"There are plenty of locations around the world that have unhealthy wintertime inversions, but the severity that we have is worsened because of the surrounding terrain," said John Horel, an atmospheric science professor at the University of Utah.

He and the university's David Whiteman have been coordinating the state's largest field study in more than a decade probing Utah's winter inversions and the atmospheric factors that come into play.

"What can happen is at certain times you can get enough flow that it can push some of the pollution over the Great Salt Lake, and then it comes sloshing back," Horel said. "We are not in a teacup, but we are certainly affected by the mountains. … We are in a tough situation. The deck is kind of stacked against us."

Utah's air quality regulators can't very well bulldoze the mountains or drain the Great Salt Lake, so those two environmental components shaping pollution patterns will remain constant companions. That puts more pressure on the need to eliminate other problems. And the biggest problem flows from the tailpipes of trucks and cars, which are estimated to cause 55 percent of the pollution fueling wintertime inversions along the Wasatch Front.

To get rid of that component of air pollution, it would mean eliminating the more than 459,000 trucks, cars and motorcycles that travel daily on I-15 through Utah, Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties.

Those numbers, from 2011, are annual counts of traffic compiled by the Utah Department of Transportation and show that despite gains in public use of mass transit, Wasatch Front residents by and large don't want to give up their cars.

One Tooele County resident who is involved in a state working group crafting ways to curb pollution put it this way:

"They all agreed it would be a good idea to drive less, and no one does it."

The Utah Transit Authority does put a dent in the number of cars on the road. An estimated 6,000 people ride the FrontRunner commuter line a day — that's potentially 6,000 fewer vehicles on the road. UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter said when FrontRunner extends into Utah County by December of this year another 6,800 people are anticipated to ride each day.

On an average weekday basis, 55,000 to 60,000 people ride TRAX, and UTA's van pool program under Rideshare has 400 vans that each ferry anywhere from five to 15 people for an average of 131,782 trips a month, Carpenter said.

"The long-term solution is to get more people out of their cars and get away from the single driver on the road," Carpenter said.

But that "solution" has been part of public discourse for decades, throughout the nation. To really solve the problem means overcoming two key obstacles: cost and inconvenience.

A transit solution

Public transit fares in Utah are among the highest in the country and could be reduced to be more affordable and increase ridership.

Carpenter said those fees are in the higher bracket because UTA has more people taking longer trips and the service area is 1,600 square miles, driving operational costs higher.

Each year, however, the suggestion is made for UTA to reduce fares or temporarily eliminate them altogether on those "bad air" days.

Such a move would result in a daily revenue loss of between $113,000 and $130,000 — an amount Carpenter said is not sustainable by the agency unless Utah lawmakers make up the rest.

Dr. Brian Moench, head of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said there needs to be a policy shift.

"We must stop spending so much money on road building and be willing to divert some of the Utah Department of Transportation's enormous budget to expand and subsidize a mass transit system that is extensive enough that it provides people with a viable alternative to using their cars. It would take a constitutional amendment to divert some of the gas tax to mass transit."

Access to timely, affordable transit is a pressing problem for many along the spread-out, meandering corridor of the Wasatch Front that is encapsulated by mountains on one side and the Great Salt Lake on the other.

The nearest UTA bus stop is a little more than three miles from Joe Murphy's home in Weber County's Farr West and while he's ridden FrontRunner a few times to get to Salt Lake City, it is not because it is more convenient or less expensive than driving his car.

"Right now, FrontRunner is a novelty to me, because you are not saving any time."

Murphy said if he were to take public transportation to get to work at Hill Air Force Base, it would take him two hours and 20 minutes to go 17 miles.

To go to dinner in Salt Lake City or take in a Utah Jazz game, it costs him $20.40 for him and his wife, Brandy, to ride FrontRunner.

"I can drive it cheaper than that," he said.

About 105 employers provide transit passes to workers, but that is not helpful if the workplace is still miles away. Much like hotels offer shuttles, Murphy wonders if the UTA could offer specialized shuttle services to make up where bus routes end, but Carpenter said Homeland Security prevents a public route from entering the base. Employers and the UTA, clean air advocates insist, could do more to provide comprehensive shuttle services to transport people in larger numbers.

Turning over the fleet

Transportation planners with the Wasatch Front Regional Council and the state Division of Air Quality say even as new cars become cleaner-burning and more fuel-efficient, too many older, exhaust-spewing vehicles remain on the road — chief among them dirty diesel engines.

"They only represent 7 percent of the fleet, but are 40 percent of the nitrous oxide problem," said Kip Billings, traffic engineer with the Wasatch Front Regional Council.

Moench agrees.

"An older diesel engine creates 100 times more pollution per horsepower generated than a gasoline engine," he said. "The more diesel engines we can get off the road or upgrade to the new generation cleaner engines (Tier 4) the better."

Utah's Clean School Bus Project retrofitted 1,204 school buses throughout the state to lessen pollution, and replaced 27 older buses with new buses that meet more stringent emissions standards.

Three truck stop electrification spots in Salt Lake City, Perry and in Wendover on the Nevada/Utah border provide power hookups so big rigs' engines don’t have to idle, and also save on the consumption of fuel.

Truckers can also opt for the installation of auxiliary power units on their long-haul trucks, but such technology is expensive and federal grants are competitive.

Industry as polluter

Beyond the cars, the trucks and fuel-efficient but pollution-emitting motorcycles, industry is a primary contributor to pollution and most often is the target of clean air advocates.

Utah's air quality regulators say industry represents 20 percent of the wintertime gas emissions on a typical day in the Salt Lake area — and Rio Tinto's Kennecott Utah Copper, Moench said, is 30 percent of Salt Lake County's air pollution problem — a figure disputed by the company.

Several groups have filed a lawsuit against the mining giant to stop its expansion plans, an expansion that Rio Tinto asserts would actually decrease its overall contribution to emissions.

If Rio Tinto's mining enterprise weren't here, it would mean it wasn't contributing to the air pollution problem. But it would also mean a $1.2 billion economic powerhouse goes away, as well as the supply of nearly 25 percent of the nation's copper, 2,810 jobs and an annual payroll of $253 million, according to the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Its critics say the company makes enough money that it can afford to clean up by retiring all of its coal-fired plants and converting to natural gas or renewables and by changing its diesel fleet to the cleanest engines possible.

Kennecott is planning to replace three of its coal-fired boilers with one larger turbine and boiler powered by natural gas, but is keeping one boiler powered by coal for "power generation diversity," said spokesman Kyle Bennett. The coal-fired plant does not operate in the wintertime when pollution can be at its worst along the Wasatch Front.

Bennett said the company spent $1 billion to upgrade its smelter to make it among the cleanest in the country, using technology that shaved its sulfur emissions by 99 percent. It also has plans to upgrade its fleet to newer, larger more fuel-efficient engines.

Still, company officials acknowledge they are "absolutely not" comfortable with the levels of pollution caused by the mining operation.

"It's not acceptable to us and we are constantly working to reduce that," said spokesman Justin Jones. "We recognize it, we own it and we need to move forward in reducing it."

Rio Tinto and several refineries along the Wasatch Front have plans for expansions — plans endorsed by Utah regulators — that critics like Moench say should be shelved until Utah has done more to clean up its dirty air. It's not enough, they say, for industry to be under the "cap" when the cap is too high.

As the state crafts a pollution plan it hopes will pass federal muster, it's likely additional emission controls will be hoisted upon industry, including Kennecott, refineries and even mid-sized bakeries, auto body shops and paving companies.

Those smaller businesses, such as printing enterprises and dry cleaners, represent the fastest growing segment of polluters along the Wasatch Front, McNeill said.

"Those sources are all growing with the population and they are growing uncontrolled," McNeill said. "By 2019, area sources will be are largest polluter, emitting three times more than all of industry combined."

Any of those improvements that have to be made to curtail emissions will cost money, likely passed on in higher costs in products and services, and will take years to implement.

McNeill and Bird say fixing Utah's air quality is a complex chemical problem not unlike a shooting gallery at a traveling carnival. Take a shot at one moving target — a certain type of pollution — and reductions in that category can make another classification of pollutants grow worse.

"The target we have is a difficult target," Bird said, "and we will continue to be in non-compliance well into the next few years. It could be well up until 2019 until we achieve the standard."

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed lowering the standard for PM2.5 even more, a move clean air advocates said is long overdue.

"There is no safe level of pollution," Moench said. "What needs to be done is draw a line in the sand, in this case 'in the air' whereby every segment constantly lowers its emissions so that the net effect is as close to zero emissions as we can get."


Curbing pollution has become a problem stretching beyond industry and now resting at the door of each Utah resident. And facing the costs and inconveniences will not hit everyone equally.

Cache County residents who have not had to contemplate annual emissions inspections on their vehicles will see that change. So could Tooele and Box Elder counties.

The simple act of igniting a pilot light on a water heater will become more rare as those appliances are phased out, and simply prohibited, under a new rule being pondered.

On chilly winter nights, the pleasure of a cozy fire may be a thing of the past as new construction could forbid fireplaces or wood-burning stoves in homes, or the state air quality division calls "no burn" days earlier to try to stave off inversions.

Those pushing for change say cleaning the air must become more than just the job of some people, some industries, and more than just a voluntary act.

"It's going to take everything," said Sam Klemm, with the Wasatch Front Regional Council. Political will, money and sacrifice.

"Any bit of pollution you can get out of the air, we all benefit from it," Moench said. "Having a 'safe' level of pollution is a concept that is no longer valid."