Brian Moench: Utah lawmakers may yet emerge from their environmental comas

A harsh national spotlight is drawing attention to Utah’s environmental hazards.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Drought conditions have left many shallow ponds dry as they lay dormant in hopes of once again being filled for the benefits of shorebirds at Audubon’s Gillmor Sanctuary on the Great Salt Lake's South Shore on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022, near the new state prison.

Utah has made headlines in the national and international press lately that haven’t exactly glorified “the Utah Way.” Typical was a New York Times headline, “As the Great Salt Lake dries up, Utah Faces an ‘Environmental Nuclear Bomb.’”

In little more than a week I’ve been contacted by four reporters from national news outlets — CBS, ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Bloomberg and Reuters — each pursuing stories on different environmental scourges in Utah. No surprise that I received an e-mail from yet another out-of-state family considering relocating to Utah.

They wrote, “We’ve heard horrible things about the air quality in SLC due to many causes: inversion, wildfires, the Great Salt Lake drying up and releasing arsenic and mercury into the atmosphere, etc. We are most concerned about the health of our daughter since she is considered sensitive because of her age. If this were your child would SLC be somewhere you avoid completely or are there ways to still live there and have a good quality of life despite these issues?”

Our physicians group fields other questions that should send a chill up the spine of every Utah legislator, such as: “Given air pollution’s harm to fetal development and long-term health, can you recommend the best time to conceive a child?” “Is it safe to conceive children in Utah at all with this air pollution?”

I’ll never forget phone calls a few years ago from the wife of one of the most high-profile sports celebrities Utah has ever had, who was moving to Utah from the East Coast. She asked for advice on where she could purchase a home where their children could breathe clean air because she heard our air quality was terrible. After two lectures I gave last week on environmental neurotoxins, among the first questions asked were about air pollution from Utah’s inland port, even though I hadn’t mentioned the port in either case.

The self-congratulatory assumption of Utah’s business elites and lawmakers that our state is well-run, family friendly and admired by all obscures not only the public health consequences of their environmental disregard, but the reputation and economic repercussions that come with it. And all three are getting worse.

The anti-environmental cabal of extraction industries, land developers, construction companies and the Utah Department of Transportation have owned Utah’s Capitol Hill for decades. Sacrificing our air, water, public health and quality of life for business profit and relentless pursuit of the myth that population growth is inevitable, sacrosanct and can continue indefinitely are essentially codified into state law. The disconnect between state law and our limits to growth has never been more stark.

The prison move and the inland port were born of state law that callously dismissed the value of the Great Salt Lake, and the impact of yet more air pollution smothering the west side. Even on the wealthier east side, state law requires the Department of Environmental Quality to issue a permit for the proposed mine in Parley’s Canyon, never mind it would be a monstrous health hazard reviled by everyone. The mine may yet be stopped, but it will be no thanks to DEQ or the Legislature. In fact, the Legislature may mandate it.

The same will be true of US Mag Corp’s application to dig new canals to continue syphoning off 100,000 gallons a minute of Great Salt Lake water, despite the lake disappearing and the clear evidence that entire ecosystem is already collapsing. It will be the same story for Rio Tinto applying for permits to expand into underground mining at the Bingham Pit, and for Geneva to expand their huge gravel pit at the Point of the Mountain.

UDOT enjoys ultimate authority to inflict its value system on everyone else, endlessly fertilizing urban sprawl with freeways and asphalt, and carving up the Cottonwood Canyons for a gondola in the name of decreased travel time and joy rides for wealthy skiers.

As more wildfire smoke, dust and ozone blanket the Wasatch Front; as the Great Salt Lake disappears and our reservoirs shrivel up; as temperatures rise and drought decimates our forests; as our watershed and open space are paved over, there is but a hint that our lawmakers are finally emerging from their environmental comas. And unfortunately, only thanks to the rest of the world shining a harsh spotlight on us.

Dr. Brian Moench | president, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment

Brian Moench, M.D., Salt Lake City, is president, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.