Here’s how lawmakers want to fix Utah’s terrible air quality

Boosting EV charging network, setting emissions requirements for the Inland Port are in the mix.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake Valley from Alta ski resort, on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023.

The mountains disappear. Sore throats plague non-smokers. People describe the air as “soupy” and “gross.”

Would it really be February in Salt Lake City without snow-capped mountains and a little pollution-induced hacking cough? Inversion was back in full force last week, with a thick layer of pollution blanketing Northern Utah cities.

While inversion may be old news, on Wednesday, members of the bipartisan Clean Air Caucus gathered at the Capitol to talk about new bills aimed at helping Utahns breathe a little easier.

Many of the bills and requests for appropriations centered on the shrinking Great Salt Lake.

“We know if the lake turns into a giant, open-air salt flat we’re not going to be in good shape,” said Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City. “The [bills] may not immediately affect air quality, but they will have a positive effect.”

One request for appropriation from Rep. Doug Owens, D-Millcreek, focused on beefing up the monitoring of the impacts of the Great Salt Lake’s dust. The governor’s budget also called for a “Wasatch Front Dust Study.”

(Sofia Jeremias | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Joel Briscoe speaks during a press conference on air quality related bills held by the Clean Air Caucus at the Utah State Capitol.

Other pieces of legislation would try to curb pollution more directly.

Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake City, is working on a bill regulating bromine emissions. Blouin noted a recent report which found US Magnesium’s bromine emissions contributed to 10% to 25% of Salt Lake City’s PM2.5 pollution.

Another bill, HB220, aims to reduce air pollution on the Wasatch Front by 50% in seven years by creating incentives and setting “emissions requirements” for the Inland Port Authority board.

Legislators also focused on boosting electric vehicles in the state. Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, requested funds for electric vehicle data collection and management. “My goal would be that we can travel from one corner of the state to another corner of the state in an electric vehicle without having to fear getting stranded,” Anderegg said. The data would allow the state to see how much electric cars are curbing emissions.

One bill focused on making the ASPIRE Engineering Research Center at Utah State University a center for “electrification of transportation infrastructure,” research and planning.

A few lawmakers also focused on public transportation and increasing ridership. Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, is asking for $25.5 million to make Utah Transit Authority fares free for one year. Gov. Spencer Cox made the same request in his budget recommendation.

“The only way we’re going to manage future growth through my district is to get more people to ride the train,” Weiler said. “And there are barriers to getting people to do that for the first time and I sincerely believe that if we make it free for a year we’ll get a lot more people to try it out.”

With the Legislative session halfway over, lawmakers will have to persuade their colleagues quickly. Budget priorities are getting sorted this week and the executive appropriations committee will choose the year’s budgetary winners and losers.

Patrice Arent, a former state lawmaker and founder of the Clean Air Caucus, was optimistic about the past efforts of the group and its ability to pass meaningful legislation.

“It’s really serious stuff when we have these inversions,” Arent said. “And we can make a difference.”