In the past few weeks, we have seen a combination of record high temperatures, fires in Utah and neighboring states that fill our skies with wildfire smoke and mandatory action regarding our air quality.
These bad air days have set off alarms for many Utahns, as they should. It’s left many of us wondering how we got here — barely being able to breathe the air in this place we love and why our policymakers haven’t done more to address this cycle of pollution-fuel climate crises and serious health hazards.
On July 11, 25 and 26 our ground-level ozone concentrations signaled mandatory action for Salt Lake County. Natural ozone high in the atmosphere protects the earth from harmful radiation from space, but ground-level ozone pollution is created by a cocktail of emissions (nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons) from our cars, buildings and industrial sources across the state.
When we breathe in ozone pollution, it essentially creates a sunburn on our lungs. This harmful ozone pollution spikes during the summer because its formation is directly tied to sunlight: When there are more hours of direct sun exposure to these chemicals, the worse the ozone pollution.
What is alarming about our summer ozone is the ongoing attempts to blame international sources instead of holding local polluters accountable. At the behest of the governor’s office and legislative leadership, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality has applied for a waiver with the EPA specifically reserved for airsheds impacted by immediate international pollution sources, conditions which do not exist in Utah.
The goal is to relieve polluters of future controls to improve our air by blaming outside sources, even though the DEQ’s own science demonstrates that the vast majority of ozone pollution comes from local sources.
The other pollution clogging our summertime skies is wildfire smoke, an issue that will only continue to get worse if drought, extreme heat and climate change aren’t immediately addressed. But even as our wildfire seasons grow longer and more intense, the smoke they generate isn’t currently “counted” by federal and state regulators when they are considering our air quality problems and solutions. But, despite this loophole, wildfire smoke has direct, harmful effects on the people left breathing it. With climate change leading to more wildfires, there must be action to inform the public with a complete air quality report free of such exemptions.
These issues have been felt by Utahns across the valley but, while these climate issues affect everyone, it is important to show the disproportionate effects that are being felt by low-income communities, and predominantly communities of color. This is due to Utah’s systemic issues, such as refineries and highways being located on the West Side. There is also the fact that these communities have less access to green spaces and a way to escape the bad air on mandatory days.
Everybody likes to point their finger at whose job it is to clean up our air. The industry says they are doing all they can while legislators resist more regulation and encourage individual action. It leaves many Utahns wondering how they can best make a difference.
While individual steps like riding public transportation or converting to non-polluting home appliances are admirable lifestyle changes, it needs to become easier to do those things than to maintain the status quo before it will start making a substantial difference. The impetus to create this kind of, rapid, long-lasting and systemic change has to come from our legislative and executive branches of government — at the state and federal level — who hold the power, resources and authority to measurably improve our air.
The more time they waste before taking decisive action, the more our health, families, communities and futures will suffer.
Meisei Gonzalez is a communications associate for the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah. (HEAL Utah).