West Valley City • Annie Scarber formed a stark memory during her first year in the Salt Lake Valley.
She was about 6 years old when she pointed her finger at a gray cloud concentrating under the mountains. She hadn’t seen anything like that in her native Arizona.
That’s when her father introduced her to a word that would prevail in her vocabulary for the next years of her life:
“When I first learned about that,” Scarber said. “[I thought] ew, that’s kind of gross, it’s like a soup bowl.”
Her family then lived in a student housing unit close to the University of Utah in east Salt Lake City. But for the past seven years, the 16-year-old’s home has been in West Valley City, and that cloud is no longer at a distance, it’s part of her daily life.
Like her, many other teenagers who grew up on the Salt Lake Valley’s west side have heard about the bad air. Though not all of her Granger High School peers take a formal course to better understand the environment they live in, an interschool program helps them explore both that cloud’s cause and potential solutions to mitigate it.
All of this, through art.
Utah State University organizes a competition among young students to market solutions to the pollution that pervades the valley.
USU professors Edwin Stafford and Roslynn McCann started the competition in 2015. They conjured up the idea after attending a Cache Clean Air Consortium summit in which Stafford said they noticed gaps surrounding knowledge about area air pollution.
“There is very little education going out to high schoolers,” Stafford said. “Most students tell us that the contest is the only formal education they receive about Utah’s air pollution.”
The Wasatch Front and Cache County are familiar with poor air. Both areas are known for exceeding National Ambient Air Quality Standards in the winter. But while collecting data from the air quality competition, Stafford discovered some students’ answers suggested that “they’re getting kind of a haphazard understanding of air pollution.”
Participants got creative and incorporated diverse art mediums to send messages encouraging Utahns to do their part to stop contributing to the valley’s inversions.
Scarber used alcohol markers to draw a winning entry. Her piece portrays a car with a body of its own and a passenger holding a key. Swirls blended with words in cursive surround it with keywords that, in her view, represent the state’s air — gross, disgusting, death and lung cancer.
“I kind of felt a little bit anxious because of, this is going to sound dramatic, the impending doom of our planet,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful planet, but we’re destroying it. It’s very sad.”
Environmental education is ‘too divisive’ for some parents
Stafford gave an air quality and marketing presentation to art students at Granger High this year. Alysson Galarza, an art teacher at the school, noticed the same education gap Stafford found.
She said some of her students were aware of the bad air in Utah and especially the Salt Lake Valley’s west side. Others, she said, didn’t know why they couldn’t see the mountains in the winter.
“Which is surprising to me,” Galarza said, “that a child would be unfamiliar with that at the high school level.”
For her, it’s “unbelievable” that pollution education isn’t widely taught in Utah schools. But if it’s not in the curriculum, “it’s not something teachers can always get to.” And in some cases, Galarza added, teachers get into trouble for lessons outside of the approved curriculum.
Stafford said parents are asked why they believe air quality education isn’t taught in Utah schools.
“They openly say that our state is too conservative,” he said, “and that pollution is just something that we can’t talk about in the schools. It’s too politically divisive.”
The air quality art competition gives students the opportunity to learn about the problem with a creative outlet. Between three classes, Galarza said, the students submitted about 75 pieces to the contest.
She noticed it sparked conversations about how the students could change their behaviors to limit their contribution to pollution. Galarza even pointed out her own culpability.
“My main issue is, actually it’s kind of embarrassing, the drive-thru at Starbucks,” she said. “I can just walk into the coffee shop and buy my coffee. I don’t have to sit in the line of cars and wait.”
Since the project, Galarza said, she has put a stop to the habit. Now, she goes inside to grab her drink of choice.
Stafford said research shows it takes about six minutes to receive orders at the drive-thru. During that time, “you’re breathing the pollution that’s coming out of the tailpipe in front of you.”
The air quality presentations and contests have changed perspectives and behaviors, according to Stafford’s data.
Survey evaluations from previous years found contestants are more likely to act in ways that clean up the air, such as not idling their vehicle or car pooling. And 43% of the respondents believe they have changed the behavior of their peers and family members.
Granger art students back up the research findings. Many said they’re more likely to walk to the places around them, take public transportation to school, and encourage their families to go idle-free. They followed up by stating it was the right thing to do to help clean up the air they breathe.
“Sometimes when I tell my parents, ‘Hey, you should turn off your key.’ They kind of laugh at me. They do it but they think it’s funny that I care so much,” Scarber said. “I don’t think it’s funny.”
‘It’s always surrounding me’
When creating her artwork, Jade Gonzalez, who is in Galarza’s class, thought of all the damage people do to the earth. Her piece depicts a woman’s torso slightly emaciated, representing Mother Nature. She wrote a message next to it: “Save her.”
Having lived in West Valley City her whole life, Gonzalez said bad air has become a fact of life for longtime residents. Sometimes it takes her going to other areas to realize how different the air can be.
“Going up to the mountains, because even if it’s still in Utah, you can tell the air just feels different,” she said. “It feels nicer and cleaner. Going to California or Mexico, for example, it just feels a lot fresher.”
Like other students, Gonzalez would like to see solutions such as more commuters using public transit and bikes. But, she believes, that may not be enough unless larger waves of people join those efforts.
“There are just so many small things that you can do, but, honestly, not much of it helps too much unless a lot of people do them,” she said. “There’s just stuff that we could do on a bigger scale that we haven’t done. But it is really nice to see more people not idling their cars or riding to school on their bikes instead of driving.”
For Wyatt Johnson, a junior at Granger, the assignment was about making a clear statement with a familiar image. He drew Uncle Sam, added a gas mask and modified the iconic message to “I want you to stop idling.”
“I hope that it can kind of help the viewers understand that it’s kind of dire, this whole situation,” he said. “We need to get to work now to stop it.”
Though he started thinking about the change he wants to bring to his community whenever he becomes a driver, breathing the west side air at home and at school, he said, and knowing it’s “filthy” is tough.
“It’s literally close to home,” he said. “It’s always surrounding me.”
Listen to KUER’s radio story about the contest here:
This story is part of Reaching for Air — a collaboration of The Salt Lake Tribune, KUER and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation — which explores air quality in communities on the Salt Lake Valley’s west side. If you would like to share your story, please complete this survey or leave a voice message at 385-419-2470.
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.