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Drew Clark: The beams and motes of getting healthier air in Utah

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

When it comes to better air quality along the Wasatch Front, there is a lot of beholding of motes in the eyes of neighbors, and very little considering of the beams in our own.

The biggest problem, in other words, aren't smokestacks from industrial sources, but our very own cars and wood-burning homes.

Before I moved to Utah 18 months ago, "inversion" to me meant something about the difference in corporate taxation rates between foreign countries and the United States.

I now understand it to be the dicey winter season in the Salt Lake and Utah valleys, where weather patterns can lead to a sickening day-after-day accumulation of pollutants.

Technically speaking, the problem is not the inversion itself. That is merely the atmospheric condition in which colder air closer to the ground is trapped under a layer of warmer air. The problem is that pollutants get trapped close to the ground, where all of us live. The effect of the inversion on the bowl-like topography of the Wasatch Front is like driving around in a very big and unventilated garage.

So how can we clean out and freshen up the garage? Utah's Division of Air Quality creates an inventory of pollutants from each of three main categories: transportation, industrial and homes.

Cars and other forms of transportation account for 57 percent of the particulate matter, 32 percent of it comes from homes (and small businesses and localized sources), and only 11 percent from major industrial sources, according to a report last year by the Utah Foundation. The report recommended “a lot of people making a lot of small changes” to help improve air quality.

Compare the DAQ numbers with what Utah residents said when asked to attribute the air pollution problem to the three respective sources. The body politic incorrectly perceived that 44 percent of pollution emanated from transportation, 39 percent from industry, and 17 percent from homes.

Once it is clear that industrial plants are not the biggest culprit, it's simply common sense to focus first on the biggest problem: Emissions from automobiles.

Envision Utah's top two recommendations for better clear air in 2015 both highlight solutions to auto pollution: "(1) Ensure Utahns have access to low-sulfer Tier 3 fuel as soon as possible. (2) Accelerate the transition to cleaner Tier 3 cars. If all cars and fuel were Tier 3 by 2050 we would remove approximately 62 percent of mobile emissions per day from our air."

Tier 3 fuel has become the great idea that everyone agrees upon. And yet we still don't have it in Utah.

In his State of the State address on Wednesday, Gov. Gary Herbert said: "When I addressed you a year ago, I called for an accelerated transition to cleaner Tier 3 fuels and automobiles. I have since met with the top executives of our refineries and received commitments that they will work toward producing these fuels ahead of the federal deadline. We are also working to expedite the arrival of Tier 3 vehicles to our state."

On a national level, the Environmental Protection Agency has mandated the introduction of Tier 3 fuels by 2017. Of the seven counties in the United States that would benefit the most from Tier 3, all are in northern Utah. Ironically, however, Utah's smaller refineries are exempted from the mandate until 2019. Worse, the EPA rules allow national refineries to focus their Tier 3 efforts on larger markets, meaning that it could still take years to get Tier 3 fuels throughout Utah.

Gov. Herbert's speech didn't even mention what used to be the other key prong of his air-quality initiative: A ban on burning wood from Nov. 1 to March 15, from Provo to Logan. Experts agree that residential wood-burning contributes as much as 5 percent of the total problem.

"When it comes to air quality, it's all of the above," said Matt Pacenza, executive director of HEAL Utah. The coming Tier 3 fuel standards provide some optimism for cutting transportation pollutants, he said, while industry has gotten cleaner. While Pacenza supports a whole-season ban on wood-burning, the overwhelmingly negative reaction from citizens means that more education of Utahns is simply necessary before a ban is politically viable.

"The best analogy is to cigarette smoking," said Pacenza, adding that decades ago in this nation, "people were flabbergasted to hear that smoking might be bad for them." Now, of course, the adverse health effects of smoking are widely accepted.

Getting better air quality in Utah will be simple if we start first with the beams, then move on to the motes.

Drew Clark can be reached via email: drew@drewclark.com, or on Twitter @drewclark, or at www.utahbreakfast.com.