Utah needs more than blue suits to save its air and water, the Editorial Board writes

Water and air issues are bound together, and need swift action.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) US Magnesium, seen across the Great Salt Lake from Stansbury Island in March 2022.

Last Friday, Utah’s Gov. Spencer Cox, members of his staff and members of the Utah Legislature marked what they called Water Week on Capitol Hill by all showing up in blue suits.

Not by passing a resolution that would have established a minimum level for the Great Salt Lake, or by passing a bill to make the golf courses in this dry state measure and report the amount of water they use. Those and other measures to count, study or limit the amounts of water we use, and where, were killed or held in committee.

But by wearing blue.

Given what else was going on around here last week, it might have been more appropriate for lawmakers and executive branch officials to wear a sickly gray, mimicking the color of our air. Because on the same day that our political class was highlighting the importance of water, Utah was home of nine of the 10 U.S. cities with the worst air quality.

At the top of this list of dubious achievements posted that day on the IQAir website was tiny Mendon, a community of fewer than 1,500 souls in the Cache Valley of northern Utah, far from the industrial smokestacks of Salt Lake City. The list of unfortunate bergs also included Logan and Smithfield, also in the Cache Valley, and the Wasatch Front communities of South Salt Lake, Woods Cross and East Millcreek.

Our elected leaders do seem to be showing some hint of understanding the problems we face and how they are interrelated.

The increasing attention to the state’s water situation is clearly linked to the growing understanding that the ever-lower level of the Great Salt Lake threatens to produce an ongoing dust storm that will blow toxic chemicals, which have flowed into the lake for generations, over the homes and into the lungs of a new generation of downwinders.

This is not just a tree-hugging issue. Air quality is crucial to the state’s economy. To business and labor and property values.

Last week was also when we learned that somewhere between 10% and 25% of the air pollutant known as PM2.5 — tiny particles that lodge in people’s lungs and hearts — may come from one place, the US Magnesium refinery on the Great Salt Lake.

It is more than troubling that the revelation about US Magnesium didn’t come from any local or state agency. It wasn’t a red alert pushing anyone to action. It was a study published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (what your grandparents called the Weather Bureau) based on observations made in 2017.

A six-year-old data point.

How many asthma attacks, ER visits, lost days of work and school and heart attacks happened to Utah residents in that time? How many deaths? How many of those people were among the state’s most medically vulnerable or were living on the west side of Salt Lake County, where suffering from air pollution is the worst?

What the study shows, among other things, is that one of the many airborne chemicals that reacts in sunlight to create PM2.5 pollutants is bromine. Which apparently rises from US Magnesium in abundance but which is not one of the substances that the Utah Division of Air Quality keeps track of.

Extensive, real-time monitoring of the sources of air pollution is needed. Just as much as we need extensive, real-time monitoring of our uses of water.

Magnesium is not just something found in nutritional supplements. It is a key material to modern industrial economy, providing a tough and light-weight replacement for plastics and for heavier metals in everything from electronics to cars and aircraft. Cars and aircraft that can be more fuel-efficient than older versions.

The Utah plant is the only significant source of magnesium in the United States. One argument for producing magnesium and other such materials here, rather than in impoverished and poorly governed Third World nations, is that we are better suited to mine and refine these materials in ways that do minimal damage to the environment.

In theory, that’s probably true. In practice, well, we need to be convinced.

It can be difficult for the majority of us to be convinced to drive less, take the bus, stop using the fireplace on bad air days, or any other step when it is clear that huge portions of the problem rise from a few sources.

Any group that aspires to political or moral leadership needs to be speaking out about this. Religious organizations, particularly the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, should be both talking the talk and walking the walk. A belief that humans owe the land their responsible stewardship is common to many faiths, but not often enough demonstrated in any pulpit or authority.

Our officials have been heard to say that they are not fond of regulatory crack-downs. That they prefer to offer carrots rather than sticks. But sticks, wielded by the federal government, have done more than anything to reduce air pollution in Utah. And carrots need to be paid for.