Terry Marasco: Utah leadership commits deceit by omission

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Refinery row in North Salt Lake is obscured by poor air quality as inversion conditions continue on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, obscuring the ground below as pilot Jeff Greenland takes every opportunity to fly above the poor conditions. Over the radio with Salt Lake Approach before landing he can be heard saying "thanks for keeping us all safe during the shutdown," as the longest government shutdown in U.S. history drags on.

On Fox-13 TV Monday morning, Jared Mendenhall, the public information officer for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, stated: “The people with heart and lung conditions, the people with asthma, they’re going to find it hard to breathe. For the rest of us, it’s going to be just hazy, murky skies.”

This was regarding two major air pollution events; ozone and California wildfires.

The Utah Division of Air Quality has access to the same science that I do, which clearly states that the particulate matter (PM2.5), in these intense events, are harmful, in fact hugely harmful, to anyone breathing. These tiny particulates transport through the lungs, to the bloodstream, to the brain and every organ. The obligation of state environmental agencies is to report every harmful impact of air quality.

There are parallel messages coming from the DEQ and the governor regarding health issues. Remember, the DEQ and the DAQ are government agencies. Gov. Gary Herbert plays down COVID-19 by easing restrictions. The DEQ and the DAQ minimize the health effects of our poor air quality: “Just murky skies for others.” The Legislature just passed a bill to decrease the qualifications for the state health director. Plumbers line up.

The Utah Legislature is dodging liability for harm and deaths with: “Code 63G-7-20: Immunity of governmental entities and employees from suit … each governmental entity and each employee of a governmental entity are immune from suit for any injury that results from the exercise of a governmental function.”

If the governor, the Legislature, or government agencies promote information that causes increased hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19, citizens cannot sue.

Herbert’s lessening of restrictions and the recent DEQ statement that the rest of us suffer “murky skies” are deliberate statements to downplay the severity of COVID-19 and the harmful effects of air pollution and should be sued for harm and deaths by the Utah citizenry. By not mandating masks statewide, the floodgate of anti-maskers was encouraged.

The business community is complicit with the Legislature and the governor. This from the Salt Lake Chamber: “These core principles (to safely avoid COVID-19) provide a solid foundation upon which establishments can safely stay open. Not every cold or virus can be prevented.”

This statement deliberately minimizes COVID-19, a largely unique and deadly virus. It is not a cold or any relation to a flu. Chamber leadership knows this. The Chamber, the governor and the Legislature are more concerned about the economy than the citizens' health. The mantra that a depreciated economy is as deadly as COVID-19 is a red herring.

Another example of Herbert’s mantra about how well Utah is doing economically came from Kirsten Cox, the executive director of Utah’s Office of Management and Budget. She recently posted on LinkedIn how wonderful Utah’s economy is but omitted the following: Utah ranked worst state for women’s equality three years in a row; Utah has the highest pay gender gap; lowest per-pupil spending on education; often ranks first and second as the most polluted state (EPA Toxic Release Inventory); many counties along the Wasatch Front experience the county’s worst air pollution; a study found Utah teachers are the most at risk for COVID-19; Utah has fourth worst teacher salaries in the nation; west-side minority communities experience the state’s worst pollution and the lowest school academic scores. Rosy we are not.

There is much not right in Utah. The governor, the agencies, the Legislature and economic organizations like the Office of Management and Budget and the Kem Gardner Institute paint a rosy picture. In the 2020 report to the governor by the Utah Economic Council, air pollution is mentioned as a negative for Utahns, with no further discussion. The 2019, 2018 and 2017 reports, when air pollution was a major issue, do not mention air pollution at all.

Utah leadership calls for drivers to drive less while most of the air pollution comes from industrial and diesel emissions sources. Cars input about 19% of pollutants. There is not one government initiative at this time addressing the major sources of pollution, diesel trucks and construction equipment, in a credible manner.

What may need to be explored here is the liability of omissions that would have prevented harm. Can a lawyer step up?

Terry Marasco

Terry Marasco, Salt Lake City, is a businessman and community activist.