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Dirty skies

Published May 14, 2013 6:10 pm

Utah proves vulnerable to pollution
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Utah: 85,000 square miles of high desert, with 80 percent of its population crowded along the Wasatch Front. One would expect that, outside of the populous I-15 corridor, a land such as that would have miles upon miles of pure, healthy air.

One would be wrong.

In trying to establish a baseline for the amount of air pollutants present in our skies — searching in particular for the lung-scourging mixture known as ozone — the Utah Division of Air Quality has stumbled across the startling and very disturbing finding that pollution levels we would expect to find only in giant cities exist almost everywhere in the state.

This means that a landscape we used to think was somewhat forgiving of humanity's environment-soiling activities may actually be laid out in such a way as to have a surprisingly small tolerance for pollution. Which means the state will soon have to start taking rather severe measures — on its own, or ordered by the federal government — to make our supposedly livable state merely habitable.

For reasons that regulators and scientists are just starting to puzzle out, the number of high-smog days in such apparent state-of-nature spots as the Great Salt Lake's Badger Island and the high-altitude community of Parley's Summit was actually greater than that recorded in automobile-infested, refinery-dotted Salt Lake City.

The research also reenforced the view that the relatively low-population Uinta Basin also suffers from high levels of ozone pollution. There, it appears, woes arise from a booming oil and gas business trapped in a valley.

One factor necessary in the creation of ozone, a substance that damages lungs of even healthy people in a manner compared to getting a sunburn, is sunlight. Which Utah has a lot of. Other parts of the recipe — industrial and auto exhausts, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide — are generally found in urbanized areas. So why such high levels on Badger and Antelope islands and other points farther west?

For areas around the lake, the educated hunch is that the large amount of sunlight reflected off the water's surface increases ozone production. For other areas, it is possible that we are once again a community of downwinders, except that instead of nuclear fallout, we are just besmirched by drifting pollution from Las Vegas, and even Los Angeles.

In order to face this problem, we are going to have to adopt a statewide version of the Serenity Prayer, accepting what we cannot change — primarily our topography — and working very hard indeed to change what we can — the poisons we allow into our air.