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Editorial: Stop refinery expansions while air studies go on

Published December 25, 2013 1:01 am

We need to understand 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This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

As Utah scientists and researchers look more closely at the problem of air pollution in Utah, especially during winter inversions, what they are discovering is how much remains unknown.

They are adjusting theories about what chemicals are most abundant in the pollution known as PM2.5 and where it comes from. They have found that some sources, such as wood-burning stoves and fireplaces, create a bigger proportion of the pollution than they had believed.

Given that there is much we don't know, it would be prudent for the Utah Legislature to set stricter standards for polluting industries to lessen emissions known to be hazardous and delay issuing permits for refineries, mines and other pollution sources to expand. And it should revoke an expansion permit for Holly refinery.

Such expansions that increase volatile compounds simply make no sense in smoggy Salt Lake Valley. Let's determine more precisely what the danger is and its sources before we allow even more chemicals of unknown risk into the air we all breathe.

The latest in an ongoing series of Tribune stories on pollution explains that PM2.5 is a catchall category of pollutants, defined as particles and droplets less than 2.5 microns in diameter. The tiny particles — only 1/20th the width of a human hair — can lodge deep in lung tissue. PM2.5 is linked to many diseases, from cancer to asthma and possibly even to autism. Some doctors advise pregnant patients to leave the Salt Lake Valley during inversions.

Vehicles, industrial smoke stacks and wood stoves spew particulates directly into the air. But most of the PM2.5 is emitted in the form of "precursor" gases, such as nitrous oxides and volatile organic compounds, which react in the atmosphere to form particles. In granting a permit for Holly to expand, the State Department of Air Quality is allowing more of these precursor compounds to be emitted.

That's asking for trouble for the thousands of Utahns whose health is already affected by bad air.

In what must be considered just a first step, Gov. Gary Herbert is rightly proposing to invest state money in research as part of a proposed $18 million package of new spending next year targeting air quality.

It is irresponsible for the Legislature to refuse to give the DAQ the regulatory ammunition it needs to restrict increases in these compounds. For everyone's sake, let's take a breather from industrial expansion until we know how to reduce the danger.