West-siders, at last, may have the proof they need to fix air pollution

EPA study could bring more funding to help west-siders, who suffer from worse air and higher health risks than others in the Salt Lake Valley.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Unhealthy air quality settles over Salt Lake Valley in February 2023. A new federal study confirms that pollution and other environmental problems are more pronounced on the west side.

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A new federally funded study confirms what Salt Lake City’s west-siders already know: Their air is worse. Their health risks are higher. Their quality of life is poorer.

Still, many say they love their homes, their neighbors, their lives. They simply yearn for solutions, and this data could help secure funding to bring results.

“We want to stay here,” said Daniel Strong, president of the Westside Coalition. “If there’s anything that makes that difficult for people, it’s hearing things like ‘we have the worst air quality in the state’ and ‘it’s dangerous for our kids.’ So, yeah, we want to change that.”

A new draft environmental justice assessment — presented at a community meeting Tuesday evening by the EPA — sculpts the parameters of the problem.

Westpointe, Jordan Meadows, Poplar Grove, Glendale, Fairpark and Rose Park “have higher instances of pollution and associated health risks and socioeconomic risk factors that exacerbate them,” according to the assessment’s fact sheet.

These areas also have the highest “asthma burdens” in Utah and lower life expectancies when compared to the east side. West-siders also are at a greater risk of cancer from air pollutants than other parts of Salt Lake City.

The study, conducted in collaboration with the city and the Westside Coalition, also noted that Utah’s capital is designated as a nonattainment area for eight-hour ozone, PM 2.5, and sulfur dioxide levels that exceed regulatory standards.

According to the initial findings — the final data is due out in coming weeks — the burning of gas, coal and oil, as well as construction, manufacturing and industrial activities also affect the air that west-siders breathe more than in other locales.

Even more ominously, several large-scale polluting projects loom for the west side — an inland port, a wider Interstate 15 and the still-expanding international airport. The EPA study noted, but provided no data, on the impacts from those developments.

The hopeful news, however, is that billions of federal dollars will be available for communities that face such environmental justice challenges, KC Becker, administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 8, said, and this study will help inform how the agency will approach those priorities and responses.

Inland port, I-15 and airport pose more challenges

When Becker visited the headquarters of NeighborWorks Salt Lake on Tuesday, she heard many west-siders complain that they were “tired of voicing their concerns” without seeing substantial change.

“We totally understand that the air quality issues that the west-side communities are facing are vexing, impactful and long-standing,” Becker said. “And although air quality issues are front and center tonight, there are other disproportionate impacts also held by this community.”

With growth destined for the west side, community organizers say they will need to work with other entities like the airport to determine the best way to mitigate present and future disparities.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, hopes the study arms community members with data to be able to get involved in state and city decisions that affect where they live. Ultimately, she would like to see more from the assessment beyond collecting data.

“Maybe recommendations and, of course, the EPA has some level of expertise,” she said. “I think, as our regulatory agency, it should be providing more of that framework.”

Data may open funding doors

Mayor Erin Mendenhall envisions a chance at more funding with the new data. Of six states in the EPA’s Region 8, for instance, Utah is the only one with an inland port.

“We know that our air quality here doesn’t impact every part of the city or this county and certainly the state equally,” Mendenhall said. “We know that our west side has carried a disproportionate burden for too long.”

The city received $1 million in May to create strategies alongside other local governments “to cut climate pollution and build clean energy economies.”

The mayor also highlighted other municipal programs to address pollution, including its commitment to 100% renewable energy by 2030, its rebates for electric bikes and air purifiers, and the Redevelopment Agency’s requirement that all new buildings it funds be powered by electricity.

In addition, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality will deploy 40 air monitors in Magna, West Valley City and neighborhoods in northwestern Salt Lake City.

“The community will drive this effort,” Kim Shelley, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said. “And will give us the targeted information that we need to address the localized emission sources.”

The state is also collaborating with Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County on projects such as the cleanup of nearly 50 acres of historically contaminated land extending from Redwood Road to the east of the Jordan River, Shelley said, as well as prioritizing disadvantaged communities while testing water and lead pipes.

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.