Concern about the environment moved up a notch this year in the Utah Foundation’s survey of issues important to voters. And while there are many aspects of that issue to look at, voters insist air pollution is at the top of their environmental agenda
On a beautiful fall day, it’s hard to imagine how horrible the air quality in Utah’s urban areas can get when a winter inversion traps cold air in the valleys for weeks at a time. The American Lung Association gives Box Elder, Cache, Davis, Salt Lake, Utah and Weber counties a grade of “F” in its annual State of the Air report for high levels of the tiny particles floating in the air called PM 2.5. Inhaling those particles has been linked to asthma and other respiratory diseases. Salt Lake County had over 19 days exceeding federal air quality standards in the latest report.
The main source of particulate air pollution is the exhaust from cars and trucks. Utah Foundation Researcher Shawn Teigen says the emission inspections required before cars in Utah’s urban counties can be registered and new cars designed to emit lower levels of pollution are making things better in most places.
Tiegan tells KUER, "The Salt Lake-Ogden-Clearfield combined statistical area and the Provo-Orem combined statistical area have actually gotten better on that American Lung Association ranking. But Logan has slipped. Cache County has slipped. They’re the ones that really need the most help, particularly for the short-term, very high levels of the PM 2.5."
Vehicle owners in Cache County are not required to get the same inspections as those on the Wasatch Front. But Bryce Bird, the director of Utah’s Division of Air Quality, says the I-M program is among the most effective tools the state has for making the air more breathable.
"Really, as we went through our analysis, an emissions testing program gave us the biggest benefit. Some of the concerns that the Cache County Council has is with the cost of the program. If you look at it as an overall cost, it is a costly program, y’know, based on the emissions reduced . . . if you look on an individual car basis, you’re talking a dollar a month for newer cars, maybe two dollars a month for older cars."
New concerns about health have resulted in stricter standards from the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Utah Division of Air Quality will be taking public input on the new standards through the end of this month. A special hearing in Cache County is set for October 15th in Logan. The Logan Herald-Journal reports the county would like to look at remote sensors that could identify individual violators as a possible alternative to an I-M program.
If the state can’t find a way to meet the new standards, Teigen says there will be a price to pay.
"Eventually the federal government’s going to say, ‘you haven’t succeeded. We’ve given you lots of opportunities to try to succeed. We’re going to start removing some of the benefits that you get as a state. And some of those benefits are going to be transportation funds.' "
Eastern Utah’s Uintah County has its own unique problem with air pollution. Ozone builds up there in the winter, likely as a result of emissions from natural gas wells in the area. The Division of Air Quality and federal agencies are studying the problem, hoping to come up with definitive data that could lead to action to improve air quality in that part of the state.
More creative solutions could be on the horizon as well. Kids from Morningside Elementary School in Salt Lake City imagined new kinds of cars at a demonstration of electric vehicles last fall.
"Are you worried about gas prices going skyward? People, we have a solution," one 6th grader announced. "We’re here to tell you about a new car called the Triple-X Rocket has 100% renewable energy usage. Our new car actually uses the power of your body to propel the vehicle forward. This power is absorbed by the pads in your seat which actually travels to the ingeniously crafted engine that you could own."
That vehicle may be a few years in development yet.
Utah Foundation issue brief on voters' concern for the environment.