(EnviroNews DC News Bureau via EnviroNews Utah) – Salt Lake City – People are dropping over dead in the streets along the Wasatch Front from Utah’s absolutely debilitating and deadly air-pollution crisis. If that sounds a little harsh, it isn’t, and as a matter of fact, it is in essence the position of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE), a group of over 300 medical doctors who last year declared an air-pollution-related public health emergency on Capitol Hill.
The crisis has been so severe, in fact, that it drew a crowd of approximately 5,000 motivated and downright outraged citizens to the State Capitol on Jan. 25th in what has now gone down in the books as the largest air-pollution-specific protest in U.S. history, according to research conducted at local EnviroNews Utah (excluding events such as “climate” rallies).
This year’s “red air” pollution streak has once again placed several Utah cities among the top five on the EPA’s Air Quality Index. The agency’s website AirNow.gov ranks the most dangerously polluted cities in the U.S., and Salt Lake, Ogden, Provo and Logan have found themselves in a neck-and-neck competition, battling for which city will hold the dubious distinction of America’s most air-polluted city on any given day.
The rally, packed with enthusiastic and angry citizens, was spearheaded by Dr. Brian Moench, founder and president of UPHE, and Carl Ingwell, founder of the activist group Utah Clean Air Now (UCAN). Moench led the charge and pumped up the crowd between speakers, while longtime and retired KSL news anchor Dick Nourse took turns at emceeing the event.
Assisting with organizing the rally was a Beehive State swarm of other environmental groups, including Utah Moms for Clean Air, HEAL Utah, the Sierra Club and the Facebook groups Communities for Clean Air and Utah CleanAir.
So just what is it that has brought Utah’s debilitating and seemingly never-ending air pollution saga to such a pressurized head this year? Well for one, Utah Governor Gary Herbert, along with many of his Republican comrades in the state legislature, continues to promote the notion that Utah’s air quality has actually been improving over the last decade when the opposite seems to be true. Also, Governor Herbert’s own DEQ Air Quality Board, assigned the solemn duty of protecting the public from harmful air pollution, has handed out a massive pollution permit increase to Kennecott Utah Copper– the single-largest source of air pollution in the state — this, in addition to doling out expansion permits to Tesoro and Holly oil refineries as well.
To add fuel to the fire in the aforementioned pollution hall-pass situation, it has also become more widely known to the public in the past year that the Utah Air Quality Board is currently being chaired by Stephen Sands II of, — you guessed it, — Kennecott Utah Copper. This seems obviously to be a blatant example of the “fox guarding the henhouse”. It should additionally be noted in these same regards that Karma Thomson of the Tesoro oil refinery also holds a seat on the nine-person Air Quality Board, adding insult to injury for those opposed to what they say is a DAQ riddled with “corruption”.
The source-polluter shenanigans mentioned above are not the only industrial situations in question when it comes to Utah’s air pollution. The battle surrounding the Stericycle medical waste incineration plant has drawn national attention, and even famed environmental activist and consumer advocate Erin Brockovich has signed on to the cause of shutting the old waste burner down.
In addition to the medical-waste madness, another issue in the state of Utah has groups like Peaceful Uprising and Utah Tar Sands Resistance up in arms: The Tavaputs and Colorado Plateaus are currently under assault by America’s first-approved commercial tar sands mining permits. These same groups point out that mining and refining carbon-loaded bitumen crude will strip wilderness areas in Eastern Utah and add much more pollution to an already crippled Wasatch Front airshed. It will also almost certainly contribute even more toxic substances like deadly uranium into Utah’s already imperiled environment.
Despite the aforementioned myriad environmental battles, as well as countless others including fracking and nuclear waste, the largest point of concern in the overall saga may be the looming EPA mandate — hammered down on Utah several years back — that now demands the state to come into compliance with federal air quality standards.
Last month, after much anticipation and scrutiny from groups like HEAL Utah, the DAQ voted on, passed and released their State Implementation Plan (SIP) in an effort to meet federal standards, lest the EPA come in with an iron hand of enforcement. The problem is that so much time has already been squandered since the EPA first mandated Utah’s compliance, and now the state is faced with a hard deadline in 2019 that they likely will not be able to meet.
A glaring problem with the DAQ plan is that it does not even begin to implement many of the strongest pollution-reduction measures until 2019, when the deadline will already be upon Utah. This is why critics of the SIP like HEAL Utah’s Matt Pacenza say that the current plan should be scrapped altogether to make way for a faster-moving, more aggressive plan.
These are just a few of the many problems facing the “Land of Zion” when it comes to breathing clean and healthy air. Many of these isolated crises have been escalating for years or decades, but the air has become so dangerous and contaminated over the last several years along the Wasatch Front that hundreds of families have either been compelled to move or are considering a move, and whole Facebook pages and forums have been specifically set up to address these sad cases.
When Utah’s air is bad, it’s really bad, and to top it all off, children are often kept in from recess for days or even weeks on end, when PM 2.5 particulate levels are high.
These are just two examples of how unlivable things have become in the state of Utah — a state that is considered by many to be among the most beautiful and unique places on earth.