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Thousands expected at Saturday air quality rally in Salt Lake City

Published January 24, 2014 11:13 am

Air quality • Activists say they're "sick and tired of lip service" by Utah elected officials.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The biggest anti-pollution rally in Utah history is expected to come together Saturday at the state Capitol, where Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker will join clean-air activists in calling for strong medicine from state leaders.

Organizers believe between 2,000 and 3,000 will show up at the noon event dubbed "Clean Air, No Excuses." This enthusiasm reflects Utahns' growing impatience with "nibbling around the edges" on the part of lawmakers, said Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

"Every important social movement has had a watershed event. We believe this is a watershed event that will change the state's course in its commitment to dirty energy and the air pollution problem," Moench said.

Saturday is expected to be this winter's 28th "mandatory action" day, in which particulate pollution levels are so bad that the state bans wood burning in afflicted Wasatch Front counties.

Moench's group of doctors is circulating a petition associated with the rally, promising to hold leaders accountable.

"We are also sick and tired of lip service by legislators and the Governor," the petition states. "For the sake of our health, well-being, quality of life, and economic future, we hereby demand meaningful and immediate actions."

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has already proposed $18 million in new spending next year geared toward improving air quality, mostly in the form of grants to replace and retrofit old school buses, to small businesses and to research. And a bipartisan legislative caucus is pushing several bills designed to increase the use of cleaner burning engines, get more people on buses and trains, and other measures for cutting emissions.

But activists say industrial polluters warrant tougher standards, a sentiment echoed in a recent poll.

Becker, too, wants the Legislature to either exercise greater leadership on fixing air pollution or get out of the way of local governments.

"If you can't do this, give us the power to do it ourselves," said Art Raymond, a spokesman for the mayor. "Air quality has been at the top of [Becker's] agenda since he took office. We have done what we can. We are one of two cities in the state to ban idling."

Becker is expected to announce a new initiative to encourage transit ridership. His plan is to offer discounted $30-a-month Utah Transit Authority passes to city residents starting March 1, according to Raymond.

Since last winter, which saw the worst pollution levels in a decade, air quality has become one of the hottest political issues in Utah, driven largely by social media and continued activism.

"We got to 32,000 people through Facebook," said organizer Alicia Connell, a founder of Communities for Clean Air. "Finally people are saying, 'The air should not burn my throat. I shouldn't be able to chew it.' "

Some are singing about it, too. Saturday's rally has its own theme song, "Governor We Cannot Breathe," which Salt Lake City musician Tom Bennett wrote. His tune complains about the burning in his bosom, which sadly "ain't the Holy Ghost."

bmaffly@sltrib.com

Catch a shuttle to the rally

The Utah Transit Authority has agreed to extend Saturday bus service to the Capitol in response to requests from organizers of the "Clean Air, No Excuses" rally. Organizers encourage participants to avoid driving to the event. Utah Moms for Clean Air has arranged a free shuttle service from the Ballpark Station Park-n-Ride, 180 W. 1300 South, and from Salt Lake Central Station.