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Is Utah’s air pollution a moral issue? Faith leaders sound off

Religion » Utah faith leaders air their views on the state’s pollution problem.

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Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman, Congregation Kol Ami, Salt Lake City

My synagogue is hugely frustrated with the air. I have congregants who are talking about moving to Park City or Emigration Canyon to escape the air. A number of congregants were at the recent protest, while still others were unable to attend because of the air. I have one little girl who wanted to go with her parents, but she’s been sick for weeks and couldn’t imagine standing outside in the air that makes her sick.

At a glance

Going green

More and more Utah churches are putting their faith — and funding — into “greener” chapels, temples and sanctuaries.

For example, the state’s predominant religion, the LDS Church, has trumpeted a new line of energy-efficient meetinghouses, complete with solar panels, xeriscaped landscaping and parking for electric cars. In November, the First Unitarian Church celebrated the installation of 124 solar panels at its east Salt Lake City building.

In fact, 2103 emerged as a “banner year for solar projects on houses of worship,” Susan Soleil, executive director of Utah Interfaith Power & Light, said this week in a news release touting Rocky Mountain Power’s latest round of renewable-energy funding.

“Since 2006, more than 100 community-based renewable-energy projects in Utah have been awarded funding made possible by support from our Blue Sky customers,” Alene Bentley, Rocky Mountain Power customer and community manager, said in the release. “This includes projects at 14 houses of worship.”

The latest Blue Sky awards will boost solar projects at the following sacred spaces:

Congregation Kol Ami, Salt Lake City

Holladay United Church of Christ, Holladay

St. James Episcopal Church, Midvale

St. Thomas More Catholic Church, Sandy

South Valley Unitarian Universalist Society, Cottonwood Heights

St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Taylorsville

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, West Valley City

Shepherd of the Mountains Lutheran Church, Park City

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Park City

Temple Har Shalom, Park City

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For Jews, the way we take care of the world is certainly a moral issue. We believe that we are stewards of the Earth — God has given us the responsibility to take care of creation. Beyond that, we believe that the saving of a human life takes precedence over all other mitzvot (commandments) and this is certainly life-threatening. It is unconscionable that each of us is breathing air that is life-threatening.  

I have acknowledged the issue from the pulpit, but have not yet given a full sermon about it. On Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, our Kol Ami had our annual Mitzvah Day where we invite congregants to do beneficial things for the larger community. One of our opportunities was to write to our legislators about issues important to us. Many people wrote about the air. We love Salt Lake City, we love the Earth. We cannot continue to live this way.

The congregation does not have a stance on legislative remedies. I personally believe that by focusing too largely on wood-burning stoves, our government is misguiding us away from the harmful effects of fuel emissions, byproducts of industry and the responsibilities that each of us has. If the mandate of our government is to keep us safe, they are failing us.

I would love Utah to stop fighting the Environmental Protection Agency on issues of political power and focus on the needs of our community and the Earth. God is not going to fix this without our participation. We cannot wait for storm systems to push out the bad air. We have to stop producing bad air.

Lama Thupten Dorje Gyaltsen (Jerry Gardner), Salt Lake’s Tibetan Buddhist Temple

I have lived in a lot of places and I have seen the quality of air change. It is obvious that we live in conditions where the air is unacceptable. The air we presently are breathing is the responsibility of everyone. I take responsibility for the air that I am breathing; it is affecting me. I am also patient and know that all things will change. We also have some geological conditions in Utah that contribute to this condition. There is no quick fix. For it to change, it will take constructive and concerted efforts in dialogue and compromise without entanglement. If we don’t change our own behaviors, then how can we expect change to occur within our environmental reality?

But some things may be affecting us even more deeply than air quality. I think there’s a correlation between physical and metaphysical aspects of our humanness. Perhaps the disturbances of our own inner winds are being reflected outwardly. We can see it in health care, marriage, child-abuse concerns, etc. As we begin to look inward and purify our own minds, winds and energies, we can formulate solutions outwardly that will benefit all of us.

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The Rev. Bill Young, pastor at The Rock Church, Salt Lake City

I do not/cannot speak for everyone in my church on this topic. In fact, other than just sidebar conversations, I have not even heard serious complaints, conversation or concerns shared with me from those people who attend The Rock Church. So this is mostly just my personal perspective.

Is it a moral issue? Not really. I personally see it more as a social/economic issue. I think air-quality concerns need to be addressed from the standpoint of, "Hey, is there anything we as a community can do to help lessen the negative effects of the inversion?" and go from there. I am also conscious of the fact that we have had fairly serious drought conditions in the [Salt Lake] Valley for the past several years and this contributes greatly to the intensity of the inversion. I’m thinking that if we were blessed with a few years of ample precipitation, we wouldn’t even be talking about this nearly as much — but I’m no meteorologist. … I wouldn’t want to do anything at this point to bring more restrictions or penalize businesses in our state that might adversely affect the job market and economy.

The Rev. Tom Goldsmith, pastor at the First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City

The failure by our state government to respond appropriately to the toxic air in the Salt Lake Valley remains a bit of an enigma. When did clean air, one of the prerequisites to health, become a partisan issue? I always figured that conservatives and progressive alike inhaled the same air into their lungs and shared a deep concern for their families and generations to come. What am I not understanding? What is our state government failing to comprehend?

Government is myopic economically if it believes it is upholding business interests by regulating industries as little as possible. Tourism suffers as well as future development. Who wants to expose their families to life-threatening toxins? Morally, the state government fails to act in good faith on behalf of its citizens. We pay too high a price to accommodate fossil-fuel industries in their irresponsible endeavors to increase their bottom line.

As a member of the clergy representing a faith community in this valley, I implore our state government to honor the social contract by which we must live: No life is expendable in efforts to increase profits. We turn to our government officials to remedy the suffering endured by a callous preference of business over human life.


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