By a 3-to-1 margin, Utahns favor stricter air pollution standards on industry, according to a new survey commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune. Majorities also say they are more concerned about the state’s air quality — notorious for pollution-trapping inversions in winter — than they were five years ago, and they are willing to change their driving habits to help clear the air.
Richard Archuleta, a Salt Lake City resident who does not own a car and relies on public transit, says he is part of the 7 percent minority who is less concerned about air quality. He notes that Utah industries have done much over the years to reduce their pollution.
Still, the retired carpenter who once worked for Kennecott Utah Copper says industry should be subject to more rigorous standards.
"They have slowed their emissions and they haven’t slowed down enough," Archuleta said. "Private companies should pay for air quality."
He is among 600 Utahns contacted by New Jersey-based pollster SurveyUSA, which conducted the survey by telephone Jan. 10 and 13, a period of good air quality, thanks to the arrival of stormy weather.
The results, with margins of error ranging from 3.7 to 5.3 percent, suggest Utahns are fed up with air pollution — even though monitoring data indicate particulate matter has been declining here over the past 20 years.
Still, the levels of fine particulate, called PM2.5, exceed federal thresholds in parts of seven counties along the Wasatch Front and in the Cache Valley.
"We know the strategies we implemented are working. The growing concern in the public is understandable. We know more, there is more health data, more studies showing the real and serious impacts of poor air quality," said Amanda Smith, director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
Perhaps driving the increased concern was last year’s ugly inversion season, which saw the highest air pollution levels in a decade. In a reversal of what has been a positive trend, the Salt Lake Valley area’s air breached the federal 24-hour threshold for PM2.5 on 21 occasions, prompting 35 mandatory action days. On such days, wood burning is banned and motorists are strongly encouraged to reduce driving.
This year is shaping up to be equally bad. Hardly six weeks into the inversion season, the Salt Lake Valley area has already endured 20 mandatory action days. (Since last winter, state officials have begun calling no-burn days before conditions breach the federal standards, instead of waiting for the pollution levels to reach the unhealthy level.)
So while there might be an objective downward trend in pollution, people’s subjective experience might tell a different story, according to an Ogden man who said he is more concerned about air pollution than he was five years ago.
"There are periods when it has been really bad, but in the last four or five years with hot summers and cold winters and temperature inversions, it appears subjectively worse," said Phil, who asked to be identified only by his first name.
Residents in Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and the other "non-attainment" counties — which don’t meet federal standards — were far more likely to have growing concerns over air quality than those living in the rest of Utah, at 62 percent versus 45 percent.
Men, meanwhile, were three times more likely to be "less concerned" about air quality than women, at 10 percent versus 3 percent.
Brian Davis gets mad when residents of his West Jordan neighborhood use their fireplaces on no-burn days, but he is less worried about air quality because coal is rarely burned in the Salt Lake Valley anymore.
"I don’t think it’s a really big problem because industry has cleaned up a lot and automobiles are pretty good," Davis said.
Accordingly, he does not think Utah needs tougher standards on the oil refineries and other industrial polluters. But this view belongs to a small minority.
Phil, a long-time Weber County resident, supports stricter standards in part because industrial pollution is so visible, particularly during inversions, when it rises in dark plumes and spreads across the valley like a blanket.
Clean air advocates believe such support for tougher rules reflects a question of fairness.
"People rightly understand industry holds too much sway over our political and regulatory processes," said Christopher Thomas, executive director of HEAL Utah. "If we are going to be asked to take measures, why shouldn’t industry be asked to their fair share."
State air quality officials say industry contributes just 11 percent to Utah’s particulate pollution. A cost-benefit analysis goes into determining whether to require an industry to install a particular emission control.
"There aren’t huge bites of that apple left and we have to compare it with the cost of each ton [of pollution] removed," Smith said. "People intuitively see these large sources and see they are emitting pollution and those large industries have large financial capacity. It seems easier to put a control on one source of pollution than to get a million people to take TRAX one day a week."
Good ways to get more people on UTA trains and buses, clean air advocates say, would be to reduce fares and make transit service easier to ride.
Phil agreed it makes sense to increase UTA’s share of the sales tax because there are broad public benefits associated with increased ridership.
But Davis opposes subsidizing transit, or many other public amenities for that matter
"I don’t like being taxed for this crap other people are using," he said. "I don’t use it because it won’t take me where I need to go."
But nor is he willing to alter his driving, which is confined to only about 1,000 miles a year.
"I’m paying for my license fees. I have the right to drive; I don’t care what day it is. If I got a ticket I wouldn’t pay it," Davis said.
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