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

Utah's Next Clean Air Challenge? Homes and Businesses

The search for solutions to Utah’s winter pollution episodes has focused on industrial smokestacks and the tailpipes of cars and trucks. But homes and businesses represent a big  and growing  part of the problem. They're  called “area sources” and KUER wanted to find out why it’s so hard to cut their emissions.

Nasty paint and solvent fumes used to be the norm for Anthony Gallegos here at ACS Precision Auto Body in Salt Lake City.

“We had a solvent-based paint system,” says Gallegos, who manages the shop.

Then, in 2014, Utah regulators followed California’s lead and required body shops to switch to paints and coatings that are water based or lower in solvents. Now Gallegos uses new coatings, sprayers and drying equipment.

“Water-based is the newest product that they have that is completely compliant with any kind of emissions,” he says, “so we opted to go primarily with water-based.”

Gallegos won’t clean up Utah’s winter air singlehandedly. His shop is among hundreds of thousands of homes and business buildings in northern Utah that add to pollution.

These “area sources,” as they’re called, collectively produce about 39 percent of the emissions that turn the valleys’ air brown for weeks at a time. The Utah Division of Air Quality estimates that’s around 125 tons of pollutants each day.

“All you’ve got to do is look outside. Personally, right now, I can taste the air. And something’s got to be done. It’s terrible out there, you know.”

The search for solutions to Utah’s winter pollution episodes has focused on industrial smokestacks and the tailpipes of cars and trucks. But homes and businesses represent a big – and growing -- part of the problem. Yet, tackling this pollution source has been especially challenging because personal views and politics.

DAQ scientists have found that it’s not the just soot particles filling the air with PM2.5. Besides the soot itself, two gases have a huge impact, comprising up to 75 percent of winter smog, says Patrick Barickman, leader of DAQ’s technical analysis team. One is volatile organic compounds, or “VOC’s,” that can come from burning gasoline.

“But also another source of those come from evaporating compounds, from things like paint thinners and things like that,” says Barickman. “And then the third ones are what we call NOX, oxides of nitrogen. Burning natural gas is a large source of NOX, as are automobiles.”

Recent clean car, clean fuel regulations from the federal government are expected to cut NOX emissions from cars dramatically. And controls continue to be phased in on industry. Meanwhile, Barickman and the DAQ are zeroing on area sources.

“As regulators,” he says, “we really want to find out which of those components are the most problematic so that we can focus our controls on those ones, because we could focus our controls on a component and a lot of money could be spent, but it might not do much good to solve the problem.”

New regulations went into effect in 2014 to tackle all three main ingredients of winter smog. They cover wood-burning during high-pollution times and low-VOC consumer products, like window-washing chemicals, hair spray, paints and adhesives.

But high costs put possible controls out of reach for some businesses, like coffee companies, pizza ovens and barbecue restaurants, and the DAQ does not require new emissions-control equipment.

Dave Brog operates Utah Coffee Roasters. He opted to make the investment anyway with the help of a grant from the Utah Clean Air Partnership that helped him buy a low-pollution roaster.

“This is our pride and joy,” he says. “What separates this from what we’ve used in the past and what most coffee roasters use is the same flame that’s roasting the coffee is also incinerating the smoke.  And so outside of the very last puff, it’s a smokeless roaster.”

This roaster is cutting emissions by 95 percent. That’s thousands of tons a year.

“I think in the end, we’ve got too many people in a small area,” says Brog, “and we’re going to have to think of ways to be cleaner.”

But dealing with pollution like this involves basic values that some people see very differently.

Last winter, hundreds of Utahns came out to protest a seasonal ban on wood burning as a violation of their rights. And lawmakers sided with builders who complained about other area-source controls, like requiring low-emission water heaters beginning next year.

Robert Grow isn’t surprised about the controversy.

“People feel deeply about their health,” says Grow, who leads the Governor’s Clean Air Action Team and the planning think tank, Envision Utah. “People feel very deeply about their right to be free, to make their own choices. And so, yes, both sides are emotional.”

Grow says area sources are forcing Utahns to rethink their ideas about air pollution. He says we don’t count the rooftop pipes, which release furnace exhaust that becomes PM 2.5 pollution.

“We’re all sort of trapped in our paradigm that if we can see a big smoke stack and it’s got stuff coming out of it, it matters more than 100,000 or 300,000 or 500,000 small smokestacks in the valley,” he says. “We’re not used to thinking about this as it’s my house, it’s my car. We’re used to thinking about it as somebody’s else’s problem because they have a big smokestack.”

Back at the auto body shop, Gallegos is grateful for the state grant that helped him make the changes. He’s grown to like the new coating system -- and the cleaner air.

“It’s not just our place to live,” says Gallegos, a father of five. “It’s everybody’s place, and you know, the population’s so big now, we really have to be conscious of it if we don’t want our kids sick or our relatives or us we got to really think of stuff like this, I think everybody should do their part in every way they can.”

Sorting out these powerful questions of personal choice and politics will be critical as Utah’s population grows. By 2050, the number of area sources is expected to double and to produce roughly two-thirds of northern Utah’s pollution.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.