In what organizers called the largest demonstration for clean air yet, more than 4,000 Utahns stood on the steps of the Capitol Saturday to push for government intervention in the fight against air pollution.
Protesters, dozens of whom wore surgical or gas masks, swarmed Capitol Hill. Parents brought children in strollers, leashed dogs roamed on the grass and scores waved hand-written signs while musicians played protest songs and advocates addressed the crowd.
Wendy Sears grew up in Sandy and remembers inversions stopping at the base of the canyons.
Now a Salt Lake City resident, she sees pollution creeping up toward Park City and wants tighter standards on car emissions as well as industry.
“I’m fed up with the bad air,” Sears told a reporter. “I have a 5-year-old son. I also have asthma and I’m concerned about my health issues worsening and also him developing asthma and health issues.”
Flanked by air-quality advocates and politicians including Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, state Sen. Jim Dabakis (D-Salt Lake City) and Rep. Patrice Arent (D-Salt Lake City), Brian Moench of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment welcomed those attending the rally and said the event marked a change from the status quo.
“The most fundamental right there is is the right to breathe clean air,” Moench said. “Air pollution tarnishes our community reputation, it erodes our quality of life and stifles our economy much as it does our lungs.”
A recent Tribune-commissioned poll found that 57 percent of Utahns reported being more concerned about air quality than they were five years ago and by a 3-1 margin favoring tougher emission standards.
These feelings seem to cut against the state’s assertions that air quality has improved over the past 20 years and industry accounts for just 11 percent of Utah’s particulate pollution.
Not convinced, Cherise Udell of Utah Moms for Clean Air read a list of demands advocacy groups plan to send to state lawmakers, which include expanding mass transit, making public transportation more affordable and issuing a 10-year moratorium on new freeway construction. But clamping down on industry — limiting expansion plans and cutting off permits for fossil-fuel power plants, refineries and mining — garnered the loudest applause, with Udell and Amanda Batty of the newly-formed group Athletes for Clean Air specifically calling out Rio Tinto/Kennecott on emissions, condemning open-air burning from ATK and Hill Air Force Base, urging the phase-out of Geneva Rock and closing medical waste incinerator Stericycle.
“Just like you don’t write checks on a bank account that’s overdrawn, you don’t issue permits in a state where we’re out of compliance with federal air standards,” Udell said.
In an interview last week, Todd Bingham, president of the Utah Manufacturers Association, contends industry is proving to be part of the solution.
Since 1970, industry has been the main focus of air quality regulation under the Clean Air Act and Utah industries have since installed newer and improved control technologies.
“Moblie emissions [from cars and trucks] have improved in recent years, but only since industry and specifically the [oil] refineries have produced cleaner burning fuels and the auto manufacturers are producing cleaner and more efficient vehicles,” Bingham said. “The new gasolines have removed the majority of sulfur dioxide at the refinery, so it is significantly reduced from the tailpipe.”
Under Tier II gasoline standards sulfur content dropped from 120 parts per million on average to 30 ppm by 2006.
Still, Becker insisted much more needs to be done during remarks that come just days after delivering a State of the City address with air quality as its centerpiece. While he lauded Salt Lake City’s measures to put the squeeze on idling and make city streets more bike friendly, he noted air quality is a regional issue that one city cannot change alone.
“We need state level authority to step in and help us clean up our air,” Becker said. “We have talked enough, we have studied enough. Enough is enough. It’s time for action.”
On Wednesday, the bipartisan group of legislators known as the Clean Air Caucus, unveiled a bundle of 16 bills aimed at combatting air pollution.
Addressing the crowd, Arent conceded the measures would require millions in taxpayer dollars, “but these bills will cost so much less than the healthcare costs and the losses to our economy.”
UTA extended its Saturday service to accommodate requests for public transportation to the rally. From the Ballpark TRAX station, about 70 people crowded onto a complimentary bus provided by private bus service Lewis Stages that ferried protesters to the Capitol.
Lewis Stages former President Steve Lewis addressed the crowd, but also drove the bus and said he’s spent the past 40 years trying to get people out of their cars and into buses.
“It’s one of the answers that’s going to have to be part of improving our environment,” Lewis said. “I have ancestors who settled here in the 1800s; I’ve got kids and grandkids that are growing up here and it’s our job to give them a place that’s healthy to live.”
Tribune reporter Brian Maffly contributed to this story.