As our winter smog once again smothers the Wasatch Front, resignation to this gloomy, unhealthy predicament seems pervasive. Recent events in the Chinese village of Shuangqiao should provide us all with the inspiration that we can do something about it.
China has become the poster child for what industrialization without environmental restraint looks like. A million Chinese die annually from air and water pollution, and rates for birth defects and cancer are soaring.
The Chinese Ministry of Health issued a statement: "Pollution has made cancer the leading cause of death in China, followed by respiratory and heart diseases also related to air pollution."
But unreported by Western media are hundreds of riots and episodes of civil unrest each day protesting pollution. But in 2009, the 7,000 residents of Shuangqiao took matters into their own hands. The town's residents became alarmed as they witnessed dramatic increases in birth defects, chronic deadly diseases like cancer and toxic levels of heavy metals. Their air, water and soil were so polluted they could no longer grow their own food and their water supply had to be trucked in from outside sources.
They blamed the town's largest employer, a factory run by Xianghe Chemical, yet years of complaining to government officials were met with deaf ears. One resident said their homes had become "nothing but places in which to wait for death."
Then, all of sudden, risking police arrest, beatings and even death, the villagers stormed the factory, shut it down and painted these words over the entrance gate, "Give us back our green hills, our clean water, our fresh air. Give us justice. We want to live." It's still idle.
The 19th century civil rights leader Frederick Douglass said, "Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them." Now add the word "pollution" in the previous sentence before "injustice" and you have a good description of the struggle between polluting industries and public health, not just in China but throughout the world, including Utah.
Rio Tinto/Kennecott is already the Wasatch Front's largest polluter. The mining concern's expansion, recently approved by our state Division of Air Quality, strengthens its grip on the distinction of being "No. 1."
Unfortunately, Utah is also sometimes No. 1, with the worst air pollution in the country on and off throughout a typical winter. Using a formula published by the American Heart Association linking PM2.5 pollution (particles smaller than 2.5 microns) with death rates, we know our pollution claims the lives of between 1,000 and 2,000 Utahns every year.
This year, after evaluating new medical research, the independent scientific advisers to the Environmental Protection Agency overwhelmingly advised the agency to make national air pollution standards more strict. Separately, the American Lung Association has just called for 35 percent stricter standards. Their analysis shows that a 35 percent reduction in air pollution nationally would result in an economic benefit of $281 billion and save 35,700 lives.
Based on population, Utah's portion of those benefits is likely to be about $2.6 billion and 340 lives saved.
Kennecott's self-reported emissions indicate that its share of Salt Lake County's pollution is about 30 percent, close to what the American Lung Association says we need to reduce our pollution by. You do the math on the cost to our community in lives and money.
Yes, Utahns need RTK's jobs. The workers at Xianghe Chemical and the 7,000 people whose town they destroyed and whose health they ruined also needed jobs. But, as with Shuangqiao, there should be limits to the sacrifices we have to make for those jobs. It is clearly time that we no longer "quietly submit" to even more pollution in order for record-breaking profits to continue at RTK's London headquarters. We can have those jobs and make RTK clean up at the same time.
To that end, on behalf of our patients, our families and everyone along the Wasatch Front, the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment inspired by the residents of Shuangqiao are taking a stand. We are joining with Utah Moms for Clean Air, the Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians in a lawsuit to be filed Monday against RTK contending that the company is illegally expanding its mining operations and making our air pollution even worse.
If we win, every Utah resident will be able to breathe a big sigh of relief.
Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.