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In our opinion: Inland port protesters should work with, not against, officials to continue clean air progress

SHARE In our opinion: Inland port protesters should work with, not against, officials to continue clean air progress
Protesters disrupt a Utah Inland Port Authority board meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 5, 2019.

Protesters disrupt a Utah Inland Port Authority Board Meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 5, 2019.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Harmful air pollution emissions have dropped about 35 to 40 percent over the past 10 years along the Wasatch Front, even as the population grew by 35 percent. While this doesn’t solve the problem of bad air and its negative health effects, it is an accomplishment worthy of optimism and gratitude.

It also makes the protesters who regularly storm meetings of the Utah Inland Port Authority seem curiously overwrought.

These were at it again on Wednesday, requiring Utah Highway Patrol troopers to remove them from a meeting, after which they continued to shout from the hallway and pound on the door.

We share their concerns about air quality in Utah, just as we previously have taken issue with some of the authority’s early foibles concerning transparency, including compliance with the state’s open meetings law and the conflicts of certain board members who subsequently resigned.

But we support the concept of an inland port, which would establish a customs and distribution center to potentially handle billions of dollars in goods. This promises to increase trade along the Wasatch Front and to turn the Salt Lake area into a major distribution center for communities throughout the Western region. That translates into jobs and continued growth.

Would this increase rail, truck and air traffic along the Wasatch Front? If it is successful, yes. Does this automatically translate into environmental degradation? Certainly not.

The EPA’s recent proposal to remove the Salt Lake metro area from its nonattainment list for hazardous levels of fine particulates, or PM2.5, is an example of how air quality is trending in the right direction. The proposals, according to Thom Carter, executive director of the statewide clean air partnership known as UCAIR, represents “the hard work of the business community, the regulators and our citizen base over the years, and we are making significant progress,” the Deseret News quoted him saying.

The American Thoracic Society and the Marron Institute at NYU recently released a report that shows improvement in air quality nationwide, particularly concerning levels of PM2.5. These levels were cut nearly in half between 2008 and 2017, resulting in a reduction in pollution-related deaths and illnesses.

However, levels of ground-level ozone, or O3, remain “stubbornly high,” the report said. So there is reason to remain concerned, but given the trendline, government efforts and steps to make vehicles cleaner, there is much reason for optimism, as well.

In Utah, the Legislature allocated $29 million this year for air quality improvements, just as it has passed laws and regulations in recent years. As a Deseret News story on pollutionnoted this week, the Salt Lake region leads the nation in freight traffic. The monicker “crossroads of the West” is well-deserved. The Wasatch Front already is a hub for commerce throughout much of the region.

But this offers a strong reason for optimism. The air is getting better despite this growth. That doesn’t mean an end to temperature inversions that generate smog. But it does mean there is reason to believe those inversions can be made less harmful to public health.

Protesters would do well to acknowledge these gains and work toward a positive relationship that allows them to act as credible watchdogs, making sure the port doesn’t reverse these gains as it begins to take root.

Merely trying to disrupt each meeting accomplishes little.