The annual challenge of inversions is back, with state regulators asking motorists to reduce travel, voluntarily refrain from igniting wood-burning devices and take public transportation if at all possible.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has classified the Wasatch Front in the “moderate” category, but with no storms in sight in the immediate future — conditions could worsen.
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are all in the less desirable classification for areas that include Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Utah, Cache and Tooele counties.
It should be noted that when Salt Lake County is in the moderate category, the restrictions become mandatory because of independent action taken by local authorities there.
The moderate conditions and voluntary restrictions come as a way to stave off a worse inversion, which threatens public health for people who are vulnerable, such as the elderly or those who suffer from respiratory conditions.
Meisei Gonzalez, spokesman for clean air advocacy group HEAL Utah, said the “moderate” classifications may be a testimony for Utah residents to take greater action.
“It is not as much as an alarming time to take action on it, in the public’s mind. We are seeing people putting their guard down because of these conditions just being moderate. But it is really important for people to know that just because it is a moderate day, any pollution is bad pollution, he said.
The ugly haze that develops also has links to mental health, he emphasized.
“We are seeing the effect of climate change and mental anxiety with the increase of pollution,” Gonzalez said.
He added that besides things people can do on an individual level, there is also a need to start pushing policy changes on a state and federal level to help mitigate the pollution.
In 2019, the Utah Legislature passed legislation to provide “free fare” days on public transportation to get people out of the cars when the pollution starts to build.
Gonzalez said the time is ripe.
“This is a prime example of where it would be launched,” Gonzalez said. “There is a need and hope to increase public transportation options.”
The Department of Environmental Quality will coordinate with the Utah Transit Authority on when those free fare days are available and make sure the public has a chance to take advantage of that option with enough notice.
Tailpipe emissions are estimated to be about half of the pollution problem in Salt Lake County, so there are aggressive campaigns to get people out of their cars and into public transit.
There may be some relief in sight, however, as the majority of oil refineries in the greater Salt Lake area have moved to produce Tier 3 fuel, which has a lower sulfur content and is cleaner burning. As the fleet turns over because of federal standards mandating cleaner cars, it is estimated that the newer fleet manufactured since 2017 and using that fuel is the equivalent of taking four out of five vehicles off the road.
According to DEQ, statewide emissions were reduced by 30% from 2002 to 2014, a 46% reduction per capita in emissions. That happened despite record growth in population in Utah.