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Uneasy breathing: Leaders searching for air clearing solutions

Air quality suffers as an inversion covers the Salt Lake Valley Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014.
Air quality suffers as an inversion covers the Salt Lake Valley Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As the Salt Lake Valley enjoyed a brief respite from oppressive winter inversion Tuesday, academic and government leaders did not breathe easy, leading events in various cities focussed on improving Utah's smoggy air.

More than 200 people filled presentations at a joint conference of the Utah Division of Air Quality and the University of Utah, outlining research into air quality measurement and health impacts, while city leaders discussed air clearing practices at separate events in the area.

The partnership between the Division of Air Quality and researchers across the state hopes to recommend the most impactful air quality solutions as Utah considers its options, said Kerry Kelly, associate director of the University of Utah's Program for Air Quality, Health and Society.

"We know that we've got a limited amount of resources in terms of capital and in terms of political will and how much sacrifice you can ask individuals to make," Kelly said.

Following the state's past two smoggy winters, air quality interest and awareness is growing, she said.

Studies presented shared preliminary research of elderly Utahns' increased likelihood of pneumonia during the state's inversions, the impact of each "cold start" a vehicle makes, and emission impacts from gas and oil operations in the Uinta Basin.

The biggest air quality tips from the workshop, Kelly said, are to focus on air-conscious driving habits such as consolidating trips and avoiding unnecessary trips, and to not burn wood during an inversion.

A proposed seasonal ban on burning solid fuels is turning into a hotly contested topic across the Wasatch Front, Kelly emphasized. Public comment on the proposal is being taken through Feb. 9, and the Utah Division of Air Quality has scheduled seven public hearings in the impacted counties, the first of which was scheduled for Wednesday in Tooele at the county health department.

Presentations from the "Science for Solutions" workshop and video of the event will be made available on the university's Program for Air Quality, Health and Society website.

At the Salt Lake County Health Department, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams announced an expansion Tuesday of the Vehicle Repair Assistance Program, which pays for repairs when qualifying residents can't afford to bring their vehicles up to the county's emission standard.

Fixing polluting cars is only one approach, but it's one that McAdams hopes will have a big impact.

"A vehicle that fails an emission test is often 100 times dirtier than when its emissions are maintained and in good repair," the mayor said. "So we get a lot of bang for our air pollution buck when we make the repairs that bring these vehicles into compliance."

Low-income drivers can apply for emission waivers or exemptions on their noncompliant vehicles, but not making the repairs still impacts pollution levels, McAdams emphasized.

The county has received and will match a $25,000 grant from the Utah Clean Air Partnership. Combined, the $50,000 represents repairs to an estimated 60 vehicles. Drivers can download the application from the Salt Lake County Health Department website under the section for failing vehicles.

For Summer Cox, a Sandy resident who got her 2001 Toyota Avalon fixed through the program, it was startling to learn that the car she drove daily without any problems was "a polluter."

"I would never think my car was a polluter. It didn't have any big cloud of smoke when we pulled away, so even finding out it was a big polluter was a surprise," Cox said.

When the car failed emissions, Cox had tried the few small fixes she could afford, but to no avail. She had also heard of drivers who registered their cars in other counties to avoid emission requirements, but she didn't like that option. Before she knew it, the extensions were up and she was out of options.

"Trying to get it to pass emissions was this big hurdle," Cox said. "The part alone just to fix the car was over $700. It just didn't make sense. We didn't have the money to do it, and the car is paid for."

Once Cox was accepted to the Vehicle Repair Assistance Program, the rest was easy. She dropped the car off with Salt Lake County's fleet technicians, who are currently doing repairs for the program, and picked it up when it was finished.

"This is amazing. Everybody wants clean air. I want clean air. But if you can't afford to make your vehicle compliant, you still need a car to work and you need a car to take their kids where they need to be," she said. "The car runs the same, but now I know it's not polluting."

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker shared the city's successful "no-idling" initiatives Tuesday at a conference of the Utah Clean Cities Coalition in West Valley City, which emphasized air-friendly solutions for organizations operating fleets of vehicles.

In addition to the environmental benefits, Becker, who prohibited idling of Salt Lake City fleet vehicles in 2007, promised immediate financial savings when it comes to fuel costs.

Salt Lake City is also two years into its idle-free ordinance for drivers around the city. In that time, the city has never written a citation for vehicles exceeding the two-minute idling limit, focussing instead on educational efforts to help drivers think about how often they are idling their cars so they can change their habits, city spokesman Art Raymond said.

Becker also touted the city's "paperless permits" system, which allows residents and businesses to request and submit permits online rather than driving to city offices. So far, the city estimates drivers have saved more than 300,000 miles and kept about 500,000 pounds of carbon kept out of the valley's airshed.

Becker emphasized the need for municipalities and organizations to work together to improve air quality. Each city doesn't get its own airshed, he said.

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