Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Clearing the Air: Big Industry

Dan Bammes

The air pollution that we can see suspended in the cold air trapped during Utah’s infamous temperature inversions is called PM 2.5 – particulate matter 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller.  Just how much of that comes from large industrial polluters is a subject of some dispute, along with just what should be done about it. Dan Bammes has the third in our series of reports on Clearing the Air.

Water cascading through the cooling towers at the Holly-Frontier refinery in West Bountiful sends plumes of water vapor high into the air.  They’re visible for miles.  While these plumes are easy to see, other emissions from the plant are not – but they are contributing to the pollution that can gets trapped in the valleys of the Wasatch Front for weeks at a time.

Just how much industrial polluters contribute to the overall problem is disputed between activist groups and the companies they point to.  An infographicpublished by the Utah Division of Air Quality on its website puts the number at 11 percent.  Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environmentsays it’s closer to 30.  Kathy Van Dame heads one of the newer groups, Breathe Utah, and she’s also a member of the Utah Air Quality Board.  She says the numbers depend on which areas of the state you’re looking at and which pollutants are being measured.

"Putting all of the non-attainment areas together," Van Dame tells KUER, "I think distorts, and it gives you one sheet you can make an infographic out of that is attention-grabbing and it’s the way that information is commonly displayed now.  But there are a lot of other ways that would have more detail that would actually give us a better picture."

The numbers at the center of the debate come mostly from a single document, what’s called the2008 Baseline Inventory published by the Utah Division of Air Quality.  Bill Reese works in the division’s planning office.

Reese tells KUER, "It represents a time period during which we collected some episodes of high PM 2.5 concentration, so that’s helped us characterize the problem and it also represents a recent baseline that gives us a good assessment of all the emissions in our airshed, be they point sources, mobile sources, off-road mobile sources or area sources."

Industries like to point to different numbers, including how much money they’ve spent and how much they’ve been able to reduce pollution through the years. Rio TintoKennecottUtah Copper, for example, is the largest industrial polluter in the Salt Lake Valley.  A 1200 foot smokestack deposits waste gases from its smelter above the level of stagnant air that gets trapped in the Salt Lake Valley in the winter, though some emissions from the stack can still be detected on the ground.  Kennecott has stopped burning coal in its power plant during the winter and installed new natural gas and heat recovery systems to reduce the emissions from its operations.

Kennecott environmental engineer Chris Kaiser says the company promised still more emissions reductions when it applied for permission to expand the Bingham Canyon Mine.

"In 2011," Kaiser says, "we were permitted to extend the life of our mine and expand our mine.  That will enable us to keep our operations in business through about 2028.  And it also required us to do a lot of things to even further reduce our emissions at the mine, burning ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel, bringing online larger trucks that can move the same amount of material with less trips."

The Holly-Frontier Refinery in West Bountiful is also promising to produce more and pollute less in a recent application to the Division of Air Quality.  It wants to double the plant’s capacity to refine the black wax crude oil that comes from the Uintah Basin, and the Utah Division of Air Quality appears ready to grant that request.

Holly’s environmental manager Mike Astin says the company’s spent more than a hundred million dollars since it bought the refinery from Phillips-Conoco ten years ago to reduce pollutants in the gasoline and diesel fuel it produces.  It’s also cut way back on the emissions that lead to PM 2.5 particulates, the volatile organic compounds such as propane and the nitrous oxides -- or NOx -- released at the plant itself.

"The best available control technology for heaters would be what we call ultra-low NOx burners.  Those are special burners that are designed to have low NOx emissions.  On our largest heaters that we’ve proposed, we’ve gone beyond that.  We’ve recommended and submitted in our application that those heaters would have what we call selective catalytic reduction.  It’s actually a catalyst that you put on emissions and you inject ammonia into that and that reacts to reduce emissions even below what you get with ultra-low NOx burners," Astin tells KUER.

For industrial polluters on the Wasatch Front, improving their environmental records and complying with the law has been a moving target.  Bill Reese with the Utah Division of Air Quality says meeting the newest federal requirement limiting PM 2.5 particulates to 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air means a big challenge for everybody, especially in the winter.

"You know, the particulate matter standards and a lot of the EPA standards, for that matter, have been ratcheted down over time," Reese says.  "They get more and more stringent.  We’ve met every one up till now.  This one’s pretty tight.  We’re down there at a pretty low level that we’re expected to meet with some pretty unique meteorology that makes this a difficult task.

On the other side, critics wonder why the state of Utah is allowing industries that emit significant levels of air pollution to expand at all.  Obstetrician Kirtly Parker-Jones was among those who testified at the DAQ hearing on the Holly refinery expansion.

"The refineries can only be offered opportunities to make money and give jobs when they can show us they’re close to zero emissions," Dr. Parker-Jones said, "and then they can talk about expansion."

This year’s repeated inversions have kept the focus on air quality and on industrial polluters.  The community will have to answer the question – is their economic contribution worth the environmental degradation they cause.

Note:  KUER receives some underwriting funds from Rio Tinto Kennecott Utah Copper.  Those transactions are handled by our development department outside of our newsroom.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.