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Living History: Coal smoke, not emissions, once choked Wasatch Front

Published February 9, 2013 10:01 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As bad as the recent inversion has been, the Wasatch Front has seen far worse.

One hundred years ago, people came to expect the grayish pall that settled over the Salt Lake Valley each winter. It was a feature of the season, like cherry blossoms in spring.

Among the sources of the gritty, freezing fog were the 10,000 furnaces that warmed peoples' homes. My own house still has a square metal hatch set into the foundation where the coal was delivered. A slow and steady-burning fuel, coal was great for making things cozy upstairs on long winter nights.

But it is dirty. A regular household chore back then was wiping down the walls above the heating vents, which displayed a perpetual charcoal smear. Curtains and drapes had to be taken down and cleaned yearly.

To make matters worse, the largest ore-smelting operation west of the Mississippi belched smoke in the very center of the Salt Lake Valley. The Murray City logo still features a stylized pair of smokestacks to represent the thousands of tons of ore per day from Park City's mines that were once refined there.

It was good business, but bad for living things.

Perhaps the first successful environmental lawsuit in the United States was won in 1904 by a Mormon farmer who sued the nearby smelter operation for killing his crops and animals.

Fearing a rash of costly lawsuits, the non-Mormon smelter owners went on the offensive. They hired their own scientists, lawyer and newsmen to prove there was nothing wrong with the arsenic, mercury, lead and sulfur pouring from their stacks. Mormon farmers were simply lazy and backward.

The term "smoke farming" was coined, meaning the farmers "sowed" lawsuits hoping to later reap a legal windfall. There was even a cartoon insinuating LDS Church leaders encouraged their slavish dolts to take that route.

A similar story of corporate shenanigans was later repeated, this time in Utah Valley. In the late 1980s, a labor dispute caused Geneva Steel to close its doors for a year.

As a purely academic exercise, C. Arden Pope, an economics professor at Brigham Young University, decided to see if there was a correlation between the steel plant emissions and pediatric respiratory admissions to a local hospital.

Thanks in part to the earlier Murray smelter lawsuits, the nastiest bits, like arsenic, were being scrubbed from Geneva's emissions. This time the question surrounded the tiny particulates of free-floating grime. Geneva claimed they were harmless

Pope's finding that respiratory admission rates spiked while the plant was open set off alarms in the boardroom. Geneva dedicated millions of dollars to just one thing: discrediting Pope. Science magazine called it "the biggest environmental fight of the [1990s]."

Pope's methods and character were questioned, but subsequent studies with academic allies showed his research to be rock solid.

"His once-controversial findings became the basis for U.S. federal regulations and a Supreme Court decision that save tens of thousands of lives annually," a BYU Magazine article affirmed.

Inversions are a natural phenomenon and have occurred here as long as there have been mountains. Though I can't find a historical basis for it, some say that the Indian name for the Salt Lake Valley was "Smoke Valley", insinuating that inversions have happened forever and we should just suck it up.

While we all bear a measure of responsibility, today some of the Wasatch's major contributors to the dirty air are excused. Business and their legislative collaborators claim everything is already being done voluntarily that can be done. It's a story we've heard before.

Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune. Some of the material for this column is from Michael D. Smart's article, "Clearing the Air," in the BYU Magazine Spring 2007.