Utah leaders to blame for effects of pollution
For long stretches this winter, Utah cities were No. 1 in the country for air pollution, an "honor" broadcast internationally by every major news outlet on TV, radio, in print and online.
It provoked a national story by NBC Today and a request from more than 200 doctors and health care professionals asking Gov. Gary Herbert to declare our air pollution a public health emergency.
The New York Times reported this observation by the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment: If all 40,000 pregnant women in Utah starting smoking, that would constitute a genuine public health emergency. But most Utah women did spend critical months during their pregnancies breathing air considered toxic by the EPA with much the same consequence as if they had been smoking.
The public's mood is mounting frustration, and an urgency to seriously clean up. Other urban centers have done it. So what about Utah?
At his press conference last week, the governor said, "What we need is better meteorology... Last year we had one exceedence of PM 2.5. This year we've had 20 and it's all because of meteorology, not because of anything else. So maybe get me a better weatherman."
I suppose we'll see legislation from Republicans to get the governor a better weatherman. It will be easy to find among all their other clean air bills because there aren't any.
No it isn't just meteorology. Even Beijing isn't polluted when the wind blows, and no one explains Beijing pollution as just "stagnant meteorology."
Public policy is what helped Los Angeles, Denver and Mexico City clean up.
And lack of public policy is preventing that from happening in Utah.
No Wasatch Front resident would say, "Let's copy Los Angeles' blueprint for urban sprawl and car pollution." Yet that's exactly what Utah is doing.
As we speak, UDOT (The Imperial Department of Automobile Dependency) is force-feeding Davis County residents yet another freeway. The state eagerly spends billions on freeway construction, but apparently $5 million requested by Democrats to subsidize mass transit riders during our worst air pollution months is dead on arrival.
Herbert's primary strategy to reduce pollution is to cheerlead us to drive less, while the state spends all its transportation funds on infrastructure that encourages us to drive more. If that seems like a contradiction to you, that's because it is.
Our largest industrial polluters, Rio Tinto Kennecott and the oil refineries, have been hailed by the governor as "lowering their pollution dramatically." That is true only if by "lowering" you mean increasing.
In the last two years, RTK, Tesoro, and Holly refineries all applied to expand and pollute more. None applied to "pollute less." And the only thing that may stop them now is Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment taking them to court.
If powerful real estate interests succeed in moving the Draper prison, 700 acres will be freed up for more urban sprawl, more cars, and more pollution.
The Uinta Basin has had uniquely toxic air this year, in some ways worse than the Wasatch Front. A study just confirmed what everyone already knew: The cause is the boom in poorly regulated oil and gas drilling.
With the governor making Utah the fossil fuel capital of the West, tripling the number of wells in the area and aggressively promoting oil shale and tar sands, don't count on that ambition being tempered by troublesome pollution.
The Snake Valley Water Grab the scheme to drain the aquifers under the Great Basin and send the water to Las Vegas will kill off native vegetation, turn the West Desert into a Sahara Desert and become a new pollution nightmare for the Wasatch Front every time the wind blows.
Nonetheless, only state leaders to step forward in opposition to the scheme has been the LDS Church.
If all this continues unabated, our smothering air pollution will get even worse. Most of those 40,000 children born to Utah mothers every year will have their lifelong health affected by the air pollution their mothers breathed because we chose not to act.
A ray of hope shining through the smog is that citizens are losing their tolerance for inaction. But nothing meaningful will change until those citizens demand an enlightened state government. And that still seems light years away.
Brian Moench is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.