In his bid for Salt Lake County mayor, Trent Staggs pitches air pollution plan

It’s peak ozone season on the Wasatch Front, and Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs has released his solutions for Salt Lake County’s air pollution.

Staggs, a Republican, is looking to unseat Democratic Mayor Jenny Wilson this November. His five-point air quality plan promotes telework, pushes for more sustainable transportation, and calls for cleaner county-owned vehicles and energy-efficient buildings. The proposal also singles out the planned Olympia Hills development, a key issue that prompted Staggs to run for county office.

“It’s a big priority for my campaign — smart and sustainable growth,” Staggs said.

The 931-acre Olympia Hills plan was revamped last year to somewhat ease the high density proposed in the original plan that was vetoed by the former mayor, now Rep. Ben McAdams. Still, it means more cars. Vehicle traffic is the leading source of the Wasatch Front’s air pollution problems, because emissions convert into particulate matter in the winter and ozone in the summer.

“We’re talking millions of car trips every year at the edge of a cul-de-sac … with no public transportation,” Staggs said of the Olympia Hills development.

Wilson declined an interview about her own air quality plans, issuing a statement through her campaign.

“Mayor Wilson is focused squarely on keeping people safe from the pandemic and helping local businesses serve customers safely,” the statement said.

“This is not on her radar right now,” the statement said of Staggs’ proposal.

Wilson presented some air quality initiatives early this spring before the coronavirus began widely spreading in the United States. The campaign included educating motorists about idling, offering incentives to repair vehicle pollution controls and an educational brochure for those caught with illegally tampered smoking vehicles.

While air quality concerns have taken a back seat for many Utahns during the pandemic, pollution can make people even sicker if they become infected with the coronavirus. A study found air pollution can cause patients to stay on ventilators longer in the intensive care unit. Preliminary research from Harvard found that the likelihood of death for people with long-term exposure to air pollution who become infected with COVID-19 rises 8% for every microgram of particulate in the air.

If anything good has come from the pandemic, Staggs said, it’s that Utahns have learned that teleworking is both doable and better for air quality.

“We need a real initiative,” Staggs said, “that would move thousands of jobs from the corporate office to home office.”

During lockdowns over the spring, traffic in Salt Lake County fell to about half its normal congestion. Particulate matter levels decreased by 59% and carbon dioxide levels dropped by as much as a third, according to a University of Utah study.

Staggs wants to have all eligible county employees work from home by the end of his first term. He also proposed partnering with big employers like the Utah Department of Transportation and Utah Transit Authority and get them to commit to telework options.

Apart from vehicles, Staggs also plans to audit county buildings and retrofit them to improve emissions (Wilson has also noted a need for the county to invest in energy-efficient buildings).

“He’s got some pretty good ideas,” said Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

One thing that’s glaringly absent from Staggs’ formal plan, however, is mention of Utah’s inland port. Moench called the development the “800-pound gorilla in the room” when it comes to discussions about air quality. He projects it will bring the largest single new source of air pollution Utah has seen in the past 50 years.

“Any politician that addresses air pollution and ignores [the inland port],” Moench said, “is either not studying the issue well or is willfully ignoring it.”

The physician also dinged Wilson for her stance on the issue. “I haven’t seen her, without provocation, speak up about the port.”

Staggs said the inland port is a concern and that he’ll monitor the issue.

“I’ve seen some studies ... claiming that we are going to see a net drop in carbon emissions based on [the port’s] reliance on rail and some other pieces,” Staggs said, adding that he’ll use the county mayor’s position on the inland port board to ensure the development is “responsible.”

The county is a key player in improving air quality for the entire region, Staggs said, containing a third of the state’s population and more than half its gross domestic product.

”We have a large responsibility to take care of our air,” Staggs said, adding that the current administration is falling short on the issue. “[There have been] a lot of platitudes, a lot of talk. Frankly, I don’t know what has actually been done.”