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Utah’s booming population could pose a challenge to its progress on cleaner air

Traffic jam on Interstate 15 in South Salt Lake City, Nov. 26, 2021.
Brian Albers
Traffic jam on Interstate 15 in South Salt Lake City, Nov. 26, 2021.

Utahns are no strangers to poor air quality, especially in the winter. The cold temperatures mixed with vehicle, building and industry pollutants create the perfect recipe for dirty air.

The Utah Division of Air Quality has more than 20air quality monitoring stations across the state, with around a dozen located along the Wasatch Front where inversion hits the hardest. The state mostly pays attention to PM 2.5 and ozone pollution.

Those stations allow people like Bo Call, the division’s manager of the Air Monitoring Section, to collect real-time data on Utah’s air quality.

“You can't make decisions to reduce the pollution unless you know what the pollution is and where it is,” he said.

Data shows Utah’s air has improved quite a bit over the last two decades, he said. Call attributes the positive changes to cleaner vehicles, stricter environmental standards set by the federal government and personal behavior.

But there’s a growing concern: Utah’s booming population.

Utah State University projects the state’s population will exceed five million people by 2060, resulting in “more people, more pollution,” Call said.

When winter inversion or summer ozone conditions are really bad, Utah can surpass federal air quality standards for days at a time. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has already designated the Wasatch Front air as “serious” nonattainment at its current population of more than 3.4 million, and an increase in Utah residents will make it even harder for the state to meet EPA requirements.

“However, cars account for half our pollution,” Call said. “If in the next 20 years we switch over to almost entirely electric fleet, then that whole segment of air pollution, which now makes up about half of our pollution, gone.”

Population growth could come with the implementation of more air monitors. Call said the amount of stations is determined by population size. The division is in the process of adding more monitor stations, which cost about half a million dollars to build, in Summit and Wasatch County as a result of population growth.

The monitoring stations also inform if Utah should call a “Mandatory Action Day” when wood burning is restricted and Utahns are encouraged to work from home, use public transportation and carpool.

Meisei Gonzalez, the communication director for the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, would like to see the state invest more in public transportation to help clean up the air.

“We believe that by having a robust public transit system, we'll be able to get more people riding trains and buses rather than a private vehicle,” he said.

Gonzalez said a lot of people would like to take public transportation, but there aren’t routes available to make that a reality.

“We need to see state legislators investing in ways to break down those barriers, ensuring that individuals can access public transit.”

In his 2023 budget, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox set aside money to fund free public transportation for a year. First, it has to make it through the Utah Legislature.

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
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