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Clearing the Air: A KUER News Series

In February and March of 2013, KUER News reporters and the staff of RadioWest (KUER’s daily conversation show) collaborated on a series of reports and shows to tackle one of Utah’s most bewildering problems: polluted air. Because of a mixture of weather patterns and geography, cold air can get trapped in the floors of Utah’s valleys and with it particulate matter that builds up in that air.  Without a storm or weather front to push that air out of the valley, the dirty air can build up for days and even weeks causing headaches and sore throats for healthy residents and more serious problems for sensitive groups.

There is no one solution to the problem. Much of particulate pollution is caused by people using their cars.  Industrial mining and fuel refining operations in the Salt Lake valley also contribute to the build-up.  How bad air really affects the short term and long term health of those breathing it is still unclear. And Utah’s state and local governments have very different ideas about the role Government should play in efforts to clean up the air.  So we set out as a group to deliver reports that addressed four basic questions on bad air:

  1. How do people’s personal behaviors affect polluted air?
  2. What is role of government, both state and local, when addressing the problem?
  3. What role does industry play in contributing to polluted air?
  4. What are the potential short term and long term health effects of breathing polluted air?

We found early on that there are many people in the region who are re-evaluating their commuting habits based on their own environmental impact. But it was also important to illustrate the sacrifices that people must make in order to afford the extra time that taking public transportation demands. For our second story and show, we focused on what government is doing or not doing to address the problem. We did our reporting during the 2013 Utah Legislative Session.  The body has a super majority of Republicans in both chambers and lawmakers had little interest in legislation that would restrict personal behavior or industry.  Instead, a series of bills were introduced to promote cleaner fuels like compressed natural gas.  For our third story focusing on the contributions of industry, it was difficult to find figures on pollution that were accurate.  Industry representatives had their own take on how much mining and fuel refining were polluting the air while activists had much different figures.  We used state and federal government sources and used the piece to highlight the difficulty in finding clean data. The fourth installment looked at potential health problems resulting from polluted air and again we discovered very little studies or data related to breathing polluted air in the state.
Overall, public response to the series was very positive and the talk show portions of the series gave our listeners a chance to join into the conversation on a problem very unique to our state. Our findings with the series conclude that polluted air is a problem that is not going away and will only get better over time if everyone: government, industry and individuals consider serious shifts in behavior and policy as the population along Utah’s Wasatch Front continues to grow.