Environment & Public Lands
8:00 am
Thu May 8, 2014

Provocative Clean-Air Advocate Boosts Utah Debate

For years, Utah’s air pollution problem was virtually ignored by policy makers -- even when the air was foul for weeks at a time. But a growing activist movement has made the issue a top priority for a majority of Utahns, thanks in large part to Moench.

He stood on the State Capitol steps last January in front of thousands of people. Winter smog surrounded them.

Brian Moench speaks at a news conference in the State Capitol. The anesthesiologist's style is provocative and -- to some -- polarizing.
Credit Andrea Smardon / KUER News

Moench, the leader and founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, called on the crowd to continue prodding Utah lawmakers to clear the skies.

“The battle for clean air has not been won today,” he told them. “It’s just begun.”

Moench says the big turnout made him realize that clean-air politics had become mainstream politics.

Utah residents now name air quality as a top-five political issue.

Speaking three months after the rally, Moench says the political landscape has changed dramatically since he started his activism seven years ago.

“We have the strength in the sheer masses of us,” he said in an interview, “that we ought to be able to turn this government towards a commitment to doing what the people really want.”

It was anger and disgust, Moench says, that motivated him to take action.  During the winter of 2007, smog obscured the sun for weeks. The link between the dirty air and disease was clear to him. But leaders weren’t talking about it.

“The stories of how people are affected by this are very moving and remind me of how I first felt when our daughter got cancer and I thought this really changes things,” said Moench. “This has to change what my personal priority is. This is a message that has to be delivered.”

  

Cherise Udell was inspired by Brian Moench to start Utah Moms for Clean Air. The two groups have often worked together on their anti-pollution campaigns, and they have both been criticized for being to confrontational.
Credit Utah Moms for Clean Air

He huddled with Tim Wagner, a veteran activist from the Utah Sierra Club who instantly saw the value of having doctors take on Utah’s pollution problems. People trust doctors. And Wagner suspected the doctors would find a welcoming audience for what they have to say about pollution’s impacts.

“People began to understand,” Wagner said. “Oh, this really is bad for my health, and that’s what really changed the conversation.”

He helped Physicians for a Healthy Environment organize.

But Moench says the doctors were surprised by the advice they got from Capitol Hill insiders.

“They said that the basis on which a lot of legislative decisions were made are surprisingly petty and personal,” he said, “and that the chances of us  actually getting lawmakers to start making some bold and courageous votes in defense of public health probably wasn’t that great.”

The doctors looked instead to ordinary Utahns – moms with asthmatic kids, grandparents with heart trouble and business owners worried about the state’s embarrassing inversions.

Moench wrote a newspaper opinion piece about the dangers of air pollution. Cherise Udell read it and thought about her young daughters.

“In that newspaper op-ed,” she said, “he had said that children growing up in Salt Lake City and along the Wasatch Front will never develop their full lung capacity due to the air pollution; they’ll statistically have two years shaved off their lives; and virtually a red air day was the equivalent of smoking a half a pack of cigarettes. And for me, that was a huge wakeup call.

"Ella was playing on the floor," Udell continued. "She was 7 months old, playing with her blocks, and I looked over at her and imagined a cigarette dangling out of her little baby mouth. And I was so mortified by that image, I said at that moment I have to do something.”

Udell started Utah Moms for Clean Air soon after and other groups followed.

Matt Pacenza is policy director for HEAL Utah. He credits Moench with changing air-quality from a tree-hugger issue to a priority for state policymakers.

“I think it’s just undoubtedly true in the way the issue became a priority,” he said, “that our loudest voice and our most eloquent voice and our most tireless voice certainly has to be credited for that.”

But the same provocative tactics that draw so many to Moench also polarize the debate. None of nearly a dozen government and political leaders I contacted for this profile would agree to comment on Moench. But they privately criticize him for using shame and intimidation rather than working with them towards solutions. Industry lobbyist and consultant Jeff Hartley would not talk about Moench directly.

“Let me say that I’m a little skeptical of some of the environmental groups,” he said. “Some of the numbers I see them use and some of the data I see them use are questionable to me.”

“I haven’t seen any data that shows the public is validating those groups as the spiritual leaders of a movement,” he added. “But they certainly keep the issues alive.”

Some of this tussling has been public. For instance, State Toxicologist Steve Packham once gave a formal presentation to shoot down one of Moench’s favorite analogies – the notion that breathing bad air is like smoking cigarettes. Packham declined to be interviewed, but he told the Air Quality Board that sooty winter pollution contains just a small fraction of dangerous particles in cigarette smoke.

Moench says the state shot itself in the foot.

“Rather than say let’s clean up the air, let’s emphasize that it’s not as bad as these doctors are saying,” he said. “We thought that was a poor decision.”

Moench also embraces humor in his presentations. For instance, he told the retiree group AARP recently that studies show driving in big shoes pollutes more. One woman asked Moench what to do if you have big feet.

“I’m sorry,” he told the group. “You still have to wear little shoes.”

Moench says he’s willing to take the hits that go along with attacking those in power.

AARP Utah’s Nancy McCormick calls Moench’s style effective.

“He wants to be annoying. He wants to get under people’s skin. He wants to make a difference by making people uncomfortable,” she said. “They might not always want to hear what he has to say, because it’s their job to do something about it.”

Even other activists bristle at Moench’s style. Around three dozen air-quality groups have emerged in the past few years. Most of them avoid Moench’s confrontational approach.

Instead they work with government leaders and even the business community to improve air quality. Now they sit alongside Utah’s power players to work on air quality.

Robert Grow leads Governor Gary Herbert’s Clean Air Action Team.

“This issue implicates so many things we care about that it’s unstoppable now,” he said.

Back at the rally in January, Moench looked out on the crowd and saw a precious opportunity for change. He urged people in the crowd to step up and do their part.

“This is your state. What goes on in the building behind us is your government,” he said. “The air you breathe is largely what you make of it, either by ignoring it, making it worse by neglect, or by fighting to make it better.

Within a few weeks, the policy makers in Utah’s Capitol had considered dozens of air quality bills, and they even passed a few. Moench calls it a start.