Deeda Seed: A recipe for cleaning up Utah’s filthy skies

FILE - This Jan. 23, 2013, file photo shows a poor air quality warning posted over a highway in Salt Lake City. Inversions hover over Salt Lake City as cold, stagnant air settles in the bowl-shaped mountain basins, trapping tailpipe and other emissions that have no way of escaping to create a brown, murky haze the engulfs the metro area. Doctors warn that breathing the polluted air can cause lung problems and other health concerns, especially for pregnant women and people with respiratory issues. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

For those of us who make our homes here, winter means filthy, dangerously unhealthy air.

It’s been that way for decades.

So when Gov. Gary Herbert announced he was earmarking $100 million in his proposed budget to spur initiatives to clean up our filthy air, it was encouraging, but it hardly made any of us breathe any easier.

Utahns have heard those kinds of promises before. Yet state leaders have struggled to take even the most basic, legally required steps to ensure our air meets minimum safety standards outlined in the federal Clean Air Act.

That’s why the conservation group where I work, the Center for Biological Diversity, joined Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, the Westside Coalition and SLC Air Protectors last week to submit to the U.S. EPA a required notice of intent to sue for the agency’s chronic failure to enforce the nation’s Clean Air Act regulations in Salt Lake City and Provo.

For decades, Utahns have suffered the unhealthy consequences of dangerous particulate matter in soot and smoke generated when cars, power plants and other industrial facilities burn fossil fuels.

There is no known safe level of fine particulate matter. Even minute amounts lead to death and disease. An EPA study found that Clean Air Act programs to reduce fine particle pollution prevented more than 160,000 deaths, 130,000 heart attacks and 1.7 million asthma attacks in 2010 alone.

Along with causing serious health problems, particulate pollution causes regional haze, harms plants and acidifies water bodies.

This is nothing new: The region’s struggles to clean up particulate matter pollution stretch back to 1990. Yet in 2017, which is the most recent complete set of monitoring results, we still saw pollution levels 50 percent higher than the safe standard.

Cleaning up our act will require incentives that encourage Utahns to tackle the pollution at every source, from the worst industrial polluters, to the cars we drive, to the way we heat our homes.

But equally important, Herbert and state leaders need to understand that when you’re in a hole this deep, the last thing you should do is to dig it even deeper.

To that end, elected officials should not be supporting development that will make our air quality worse. Yet many of them are.

The proposed inland port — a massive freight transfer facility, with two truck-to-train railyards (one existing and one proposed) adjacent to Salt Lake City, Magna and West Valley City communities and the Great Salt Lake — has the potential to spew enormous amounts of dangerous particulate pollution into our air.

Data show that inland ports, like seaports, are huge emitters of particulate pollution due to the heavy reliance on diesel to fuel operations as well as the fact that they spur increases in truck traffic and emissions.

While no one has shared an emissions analysis from Utah’s proposed inland port, scientific analyses of similar facilities offer a grim picture. The assessments show that the facilities can cause, all by themselves, particulate matter pollution levels above the science-based standards.

The last thing we need as we work to reduce the blight of our regional pollution is to approve an inland port that increases that same pollution.

As the fossil-fuel-pushing dinosaurs in the Trump administration — along with some of our own legislators — try to drag us back toward the 17th century, Utahns must demand that we move toward cleaner 21st-century sustainable energy sources and daily practices that will improve, instead of worsening, our children’s health.

Until that happens, the filthy smudge that we’re all breathing will only get worse.

Deeda Seed

Deeda Seed, Salt Lake City, is a former Salt Lake City Council member who works for the Center for Biological Diversity.