(EnviroNews Utah) — Salt Lake City, Utah — When little Ella, Abby and Anna got up in front of the Utah House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee on February 13, 2015, they repeated a common yet sad message that shocks many people when they hear it for the first time.
Ella took the lead and said, “I believe that we need to clean up our air in Utah and here are some reasons why:”
First, I have noticed that not just me, but six other students in Mrs. Norton’s class have been struggling with breathing, and are having to stay inside. If our air quality continues to go the same rate as it is going now us six students will continue to stay inside. Overall, us students will not be able to go outside at recess. And I would be disappointed for our whole class to be struggling with asthma.
When Utah’s air is crummy, it can be so downright dangerous that children are often held in from recess for days, or even weeks on end. Republican Representative Becky Edwards has authored H.B. 226, a bill that seeks to spearhead a pivotal change in how Utah addresses the issue, before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hammers down on the state — a place long ago declared a non-attainment area for particulate pollution.
Utah has unique geographical circumstances that often lead to wintertime “inversions” where altitude, temperature, the snow’s reflectivity, sunlight and other factors, trap, stagnate, and compress Utah’s dangerously polluted air on the valley floor, leading to widespread health problems across its most populated area — the Wasatch Front.
The young and elderly are the most at risk. While the elderly suffer from an increase in heart attacks, strokes and deaths, the young are plagued by extraordinarily high rates of asthma, including severe life threatening episodes that frequently land kids in the emergency room. Due to this sad reality, when Utah’s “red air” hits the populous, it’s often just too hazardous to allow kids outside for recess — a point hammered home to Utah lawmakers yet again by these three adorable elementary school youngsters.
To add to the ridiculousness of the overall situation, the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE), a group of nearly 500 Utah medical doctors, has now declared the Beehive State too dangerous a place to live in the wintertime for pregnant mothers during their first trimester.
Despite the obviously dire nature of the environmental crisis, Utah, with its lopsidedly Republican and pro-industry legislature, has been bombarded year-after-year with growing outrage, demanding that something be done to improve the situation — a circumstance that has become unlivable for many families, forcing thousands to leave the state altogether from the resultant health problems.
A significant contributing factor in this air nightmare occurred when nearly 30 years ago, Utah’s legislature decided to tie the hands of its own Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and ancillary Division of Air Quality (DAQ) — creating a virtual ceiling that locked the state into a policy position of not being able to pass any regulation stricter than federal EPA standards.
The crippling code exists in section 19-2-106 of Utah law, and many agree that this portion must be altered, fixed or removed entirely if Utah is ever to have a chance of implementing unique and desperately needed solutions to address its unusual and deadly air problem.
Two bills seek to do just that this year. In addition to Edwards’ H.B. 226 which aims to alter the hamstringing language, Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis is running S.B. 87 which just passed through committee and is headed for the floor on the Senate side. His legislation seeks to eliminate 19-2-106 altogether.
Many air quality advocates strongly support both bills and will feel satisfied if either becomes law. Last year both Edwards and Davis ran virtually the same bills, but both failed to the great discontent of citizens and air activists alike. Well, it’s now 2015, and Ella, Abby and Anna showed up to make sure these bills don’t die again this year — adding a little pressure to ensure their legislators understand just how seriously people are taking the issue these days.