You can almost eat Salt Lake City’s bad air. What hosting the Olympics would do about it.

Likely little this session, but the air quality will still probably be better in 2034 than it was in 2002.

(Ryan Galbraith | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Olympic Torch travels across the Great Salt Lake on Feb. 6, 2002. An inversion turned Utah's skies brown in the days prior to those Winter Games but it cleared out just before Opening Ceremony.

A day before the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Olympic Games, a brown, caustic cloud hung over Salt Lake City. An inversion had settled in, and the high level of lung-searing pollutants combined with the optics of a city shrouded in smog — an image that would be broadcast across the world — threatened to mar the whole event.

But Utah got lucky, and Fraser Bullock, the CEO and president of the group working to bring the Winter Olympics back to the state, knows it.

“Air scares the heck out of me,” Bullock said during an online listening session in 2022. “It scares me because we got so lucky last time because we had an inversion the day before and, the morning of opening ceremonies, in comes a storm, blows it all up [and] we had really great weather. Inversions drive me crazy.

“How can we clean up our air? We just got lucky last time. Who knows what will happen this time. We have to do something about that.”

Now Utah is on the cusp of bringing back the Winter Games. The International Olympic Committee singled it out in late November as the preferred candidate for 2034 and is expected to officially name Utah the host this summer. That sets the timer at just one decade to clear the air before the world’s attention again turns to the communities along the Wasatch Mountains.

Yet, the state’s leaders aren’t exactly leaping into action.

One week before the start of the 2024 legislative session, no bills directly related to air quality have been proposed, according to the Legislature’s website — though a few bills, mostly related to transportation, could affect air quality. It’s going to be a tight budget year that one legislator described as “a socks and underwear Christmas.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Haze fills the air during an inversion in Salt Lake City on Thursday December 28, 2023.

Gov. Spencer Cox allocated $127 million for clean-air and transportation initiatives in his proposed $42.1 billion 2025 budget. That includes $145,000 to hire a dedicated air quality czar and $2.5 million for a pilot program to encourage use of public transit. But his wishlist will need the Legislature’s approval.

Bills pertaining to air quality traditionally are proposed during the latter half of the six-week general session, and that could be the case again this year. Yet Sen. Todd Weiler, the Republican co-chair of the Clean Air Caucus, said he doesn’t expect much action this year.

“I don’t think we feel the urgency in 2024,” Weiler said. “I think that’s something that we need to work on over the next decade, but it doesn’t have to all be done in February of 2024.”

Weiler noted that he spent 15 hours in caucuses in December when brown clouds hovered over the valley and crept up toward Kimball Junction. Lawmakers discussed homelessness and affordable housing and water. Air quality didn’t come up once.

A few factors play into that attitude, according to Weiler, who has held his post with the Clean Air Caucus for nearly a decade. For one, it isn’t official yet that Utah will be hosting another Olympics. Also, planning for this session began in May, when Salt Lake City’s standing as a host was even more muddled. Plus, he said, planning ahead isn’t exactly the Legislature’s forte. He said it’s more prone to “knee-jerk reactions.” And, he added, there is only so much it can do in 10 years’ time.

“I want to say we’re going to do things over the next 10 years,” Weiler said. “And we’ll do some things this session. But, I think it’s going to be a generational shift.

“But even if the Utah Legislature did nothing, between now and 2034, our air will be cleaner in 2034 than it was in 2002.”

Weiler isn’t wrong. Yet those working for organizations focused on cleaning the air say that kind of thinking can be shortsighted.

Inhaling coal dust

A hundred years ago, when burning coal and wood was the primary source of heat, air quality could be determined by how much soot floated down from the sky into an enamel jar. In some parts of the valley, that came out to 1,000 tons of soot per square mile over the course of a winter.

Just like now, that air would get trapped up against the mountains. The heavier, dirtier air near the ground would be chilled by the snow cover. Then a “lid” of sun-warmed air from above would hold it in place, creating an inversion.

In 1917, George Snow, the official in charge of enforcing some of the city’s first smoke-abatement measures, acknowledged the Wasatch Front’s air quality issues could not be solved “in a single day or year, not by a single group or group of persons.

“It will take,” he added, according to a report from the University of Utah, “a properly guided, united and continued effort to solve the problem.”

Decades later, thanks to a combination of measures taken by federal, state and local governments as well as individuals, the sky is no longer raining soot. Yet residents from Ogden to Provo still breathe through a brown cloud for parts of the winter. If that’s the case, Logan Mitchell, a climate scientist and energy analyst for the nonprofit Utah Clean Energy, said the run-up to the Olympics will be a blur.

“That is like a blink of the eye in terms of developing policy and then enacting it and then actually being able to see changes from that policy,” Mitchell said. “So, while it is a decade, it’s going to go fast.”

Olympic pressure

The IOC doesn’t require its hosts to meet specific air quality metrics or particle measurements. It does, however, demand they contribute to its targets of reducing its greenhouse gas emission by 30% this year over 2021 and 50% by 2030. It also expects its hosts to put on a “climate positive” Olympics, in which more carbon is removed from the atmosphere than produced within the footprint of the Games.

Mitchell’s employer, Utah Clean Energy, is working with local Olympic organizers to find ways to make that a reality. The nonprofit is forecasting those goals should be easily within reach. That’s thanks mostly to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the restriction of emissions via the Clean Air Act and federal and state incentives given to the auto industry to move toward more electric vehicles and cleaner gasoline.

In fact, when asked if the brown cloud could completely disappear one day, Mitchell replied, “It’s not only possible, but it’s inevitable.”

“It’s just a question of how fast we’re going to realize those benefits” of taking pollutants out of the air, he added. “And really, it’s benefits to us. It’s our health. If we move faster, then we get the benefit.”

That’s the Legislature’s cue.

Air in 2034 will be better — but by how much

The expansion and use of public transportation is one of the committee’s primary focuses, Bullock said. Yet because Utah has not officially been named an Olympic host, Bullock said he has not yet reached out to state leaders to encourage them to embrace bills that would contribute to that issue nor to cleaner air. Still, the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games has championed alternative-energy initiatives and other environmentally friendly actions taken by Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and other local leaders. And, it’s “planting seeds” with groups and leaders, Bullock said, and “laying a foundation to be a positive agent” once it is granted the Games.

Bullock said he believes having the Olympics as a deadline can help speed progress.

“We have a 10-year runway,” he said. “And wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could make progress each year toward cleaner air by 2034 so it’s more of a natural outcome?”

But to meet that deadline, the Legislature also has to feel that urgency.

Last year, Weiler sponsored an appropriations request, backed by Gov. Spencer Cox, for the state to foot the bill for a year of free public transit. His fellow legislators had little appetite, he said, for using tax dollars to benefit only those with access and use for buses and trains. The request was denied and Weiler does not plan to revive it this session. Still, Weiler said he expects the 2034 Olympic deadline will help speed the double tracking of the FrontRunner train between Ogden and Provo, funding for which was approved by the Legislature in 2021.

If the Legislature appears inert when it comes to improving air quality, Weiler said, it may be because it has picked all the “low-hanging fruit” in that area.

Weiler represents Senate District 8, which houses Utah’s five oil refineries. While begrudgingly crediting federal regulations, he noted they are cleaner than ever. Last year, the Legislature also stepped up in that arena by passing a bill — aimed at a magnesium refinery found by an NOAA report to be contributing up to 25% of the smog-causing particles in Utah — that mandates a 90% reduction in bromine pollution by December 2026.

In recent years, lawmakers have also offered incentives to refineries to produce Tier 3 gasoline, which burns much cleaner than its predecessors. And, they appropriated $500,000 for the Clean Air Retrofit, Replacement, and Off-road Technology (CARROT) program that provides incentives for the replacement of “dirty” lawnmowers, snowblowers and similar equipment with more eco-friendly options.

Now, according to a 2019 Division of Air Quality (DAQ) report, most of Utah’s pollution comes from vehicles on the road and the heating and cooling of homes and other “area source” contributors. Most of what the Legislature can do about that, Weiler said, would result in a breach of people’s freedoms and liberties along the lines of the drastic measures taken by Beijing to clear its air prior to hosting the 2008 and 2022 Olympics. China famously shut down nearby factories and restricted driving to certain days of the week — regulations that likely wouldn’t go over well in Utah.

“Some of this, I’m just saying, is Mother Nature and some of it is people living their lives,” Weiler said. “It is unlikely that we’re going to control either one with legislation.”

Ashley Miller, the executive director of the nonprofit Breathe Utah, argues that simple but impactful clean-air solutions still exist. As an example, she pointed to the freight-switching locomotives used mostly by Union Pacific to assemble trains for interstate trips.

The railroad’s Utah fleet of switchers consists of roughly 60 Tier 0 and Tier 0-plus engines — the dirtiest available. Because of the cold temperatures, the engines must idle 24/7 during the winter, which causes them to belch out as much pollution as Interstate 15 during rush hour. In 2022, in response to a bill proposed by Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, that would force railroads to power their switchers “wholly by a hydrogen fuel cell or electric power” by 2028, Union Pacific volunteered to upgrade three engines in its fleet to Tier 2. That reduced the emissions produced by each of those freight switchers by nearly a third, according to the DAQ. However, upgrading to Tier 4 would cut current emissions by an additional 84% per engine, per the DAQ, and by 90% over the pollution they produced two years ago.

Miller said she expects Schultz — the newly appointed speaker of the house — to submit a bill pushing for that change this session.

Other proposals Miller expects to see this session include creating an inventory of nonroad-use construction equipment, like forklifts and mine trucks, for the DAQ. The agency can then use that information to determine how much they contribute to Utah’s air pollution. Meanwhile, Utah Clean Energy also supports a bill it expects to be introduced that would incentivize the switching of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles to electric. In addition, the organization plans to back bills that would encourage people to install solar panels on their roofs or better insulation in their houses.

Miller said she’s thrilled about the Winter Games’ likely return to Utah, noting that in 2034 they’ll be even bigger, with more athletes and perhaps a larger audience tuning into what’s happening along the Wasatch. She hopes that will put pressure on lawmakers to take equally expansive actions to clear the air in coming years.

“It’s actually a really great thing to have this looming,” she said. ‘Like ‘Hey, we’re having an Olympics. We better take action because we don’t want to be an embarrassment.’”

The alternative is to roll the dice on the weather and see if Utah can, once again, get lucky.

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