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Guest opinion: We can make the desert bloom again by cleaning the air

A "Turn Your Key Be Idle Free" sign is displayed at a TRAX parking lot in Sandy on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019.
A "Turn Your Key Be Idle Free" sign is displayed at a TRAX parking lot in Sandy on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The accomplishments of the pioneers always impress my father when he comes to visit me in Utah: He spent his formative years on a kibbutz in Israel, so he knows the tremendous effort that was needed to make the desert blossom. But, he wants to know, why is the air so polluted?

Now that I’ve gathered hundreds of signatures for the Clean The Darn Air ballot measure effort, I have an answer to that question: It’s one part indifference, one part pride and one part fatalism, none of which is warranted.

The indifference was best expressed by the representatives of a large industrial company who told me that Utah doesn’t have an air pollution problem “because it’s only 20 days a year.” This is, as a matter of fact, wrong. In addition to the visible pollution on inversion days, there’s invisible pollution, for example from ground-level ozone during the summer. And we are learning more each day about the dangers of Utah’s air pollution, from miscarriages to missed days of work and school. I get plenty of anecdotes from folks who sign my ballot measure petition — people whose kids have asthma, people who are on the verge of leaving the state — and as a parent of young children I hate having to check my phone’s Utah Air app to see if my kids can play outside today.

The pride is that air pollution is not as bad as it used to be. This is true, but it’s no reason to rest on our laurels. We can and should do more, which is why Gov. Herbert asked for $100 million last year as a “down payment” to improve air quality. The Legislature only came up with $29 million, deciding instead to prioritize $110 million for improvements to the state Capitol, including a parking garage.

The fact that air pollution is not as bad as it used to be shows the flaws in the fatalist response of “there’s nothing we can do about it.” It’s true that our topography makes us susceptible to air pollution problems, but Los Angeles has a similar bowl-shaped airshed. My neighbors, who are old enough to remember when LA was a smog-filled mess and young enough to drive there to vacation with some of their 27 grandchildren, marvel at how much cleaner it is now. We can give that same gift to future generations here in Utah. We can clean the darn air.

Our ballot measure proposal puts $100 million a year into cleaner school buses, financial incentives to encourage homeowners to swap gas-powered lawn equipment for electric and programs to tackle the large amount of pollution that comes from a small number of sources: vehicles that are more than a decade old, homes that are still heating with wood and dirty locomotives and industrial equipment. It also puts $50 million a year into rural economic development and eliminates the unfair state sales tax on grocery store food, and it pays for all that with a modest carbon tax on the fossil fuels that are the main cause of local air pollution and global climate change.

Herbert has said that he’s willing to have the discussion about our proposal, and we’re thrilled that he’s been a champion for improving air quality. The truth is that we can do much more to clean the darn air. It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap, but neither was making the desert blossom.