Brian Moench: Air pollution more deadly than COVID pandemic

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A rally against the inland port at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic rampaging through the state and the nation has already taken nearly 900 and 270,000 human lives, respectively. Many more have been left chronically debilitated. Of course this is tragic, but it provides valuable context for another evolving public health tragedy in Utah receiving far less attention — air pollution and the inland port.

A peer-reviewed assessment from 23 regional experts (many from our best academic institutions) on the human health and economic consequences of Utah’s air pollution, just published a stunning estimate. Air pollution in Utah causes between 2,480 and 8,000 (median 6,000) premature deaths annually, decreases our life expectancies by 1.1 to 3.6 years, and sacrifices more than 1.7% of the state’s gross domestic product. As with COVID, many more are left disabled from the long list of diseases known to be caused or exacerbated by air pollution, a list nearly identical to that caused by smoking cigarettes.

Every year air pollution causes more death and suffering than what we are likely to ultimately attribute to the pandemic when it is finally over. Numerous studies have also demonstrated that air pollution increases the spread of COVID and its severity. But instead of working diligently to reduce our air pollution, state lawmakers plan to make it much worse, remaining firmly in the pocket of special interests pushing the inland port.

Failure to control the pandemic is rooted in pervasive, intransigent, egocentric denial of science and reality, about the disease and the public policy and behavioral adaptations necessary to suppress it. Likewise, self-serving denial of reality is essential to advocacy for the inland port.

At full build-out, the port could add 70,000 daily semitruck trips and twice that many passenger cars to our already congested freeways. Pollution from new train locomotives, port diesel equipment and increased air traffic may be even greater.

It is either dishonest or delusional for anyone to claim a massive warehouse farm and trans-modal shipping hub will not be a significant new source of pollution. Hiding behind hollow words like “green” and “sustainable” doesn’t change that reality.

Look at the warehouses that have been built so far. There’s nothing green, sustainable or environmentally innovative about any of them. The futuristic dream of all electrified trucks and vehicles does not solve the problem even if it comes to fruition. New research shows that more than half of traffic related pollution comes from non-tailpipe sources — vehicle mechanical friction, tires, brakes and road wear.

That the port will be an economic bonanza is denial of another reality. The benefits will be limited primarily to large corporations, landowners, developers and construction companies. The experience of other cities that drank the inland port Kool-Aid is that the majority of those jobs don’t pay a living wage. Workers often require public assistance, and even most of those jobs will be steadily lost to automation.

Much of the port fervor comes from rural county commissioners seeking the fool’s gold of more fossil fuel extraction. That, too, is another form of reality denial. To bind rural Utah economies even more tightly to dirty energy will be counterproductive for all of us, and ultimately for them as well.

Unless Utah finds a way to separate our climate from the rest of the planet, the port and the Uinta Basin Railway will only add “fuel to the fire” of a climate crisis already bringing rising temperatures, diminished snowpack, punishing drought, and terrifying wildfires to the American West. Climate reality denial will be thrown out of the White House in January along with its head cheerleader. Infrastructure for more fossil fuels will now be far more likely to become worthless, stranded assets.

Let’s start honestly acknowledging the obvious. More air pollution, more deaths and a hotter planet will be the enduring legacy of the dirty energy inland port, not more jobs. It’s time Utah’s politicians lift the veil of reality denial and end the pretense.

Let’s start with an actual health assessment by modeling the increase in PM2.5 from all the new port related sources of pollution. And let’s focus our attention on those most victimized, the 270,000 people already living in the general area of the port, whose health the port dreamers were always willing to sacrifice.

Scott Sommerdorf

Brian Moench, M.D., is president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.