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Reaching for Air: There are solutions to pollution, but will Utah leaders listen?

Flor Isabel, a parent of four who has asthma themself, sits in the living room at their home in Kearns on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023.
Bethany Baker
The Salt Lake Tribune
Flor Isabel, a parent of four who has asthma themself, sits in the living room at their home in Kearns on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023.

When pollution plagues Salt Lake Valley’s air, everyone in Flor Isabel’s family feels it in a magnified way.

By day, it’s a concert of coughing and wheezing. By night, the tune turns into snores and little gasps for air.

With darker shades of gray in the sky, the burning sensation in Isabel’s throat intensifies, they said. In 2022, in a week with many reports of wildfires, the walk to work became so unbearable that Isabel was forced to remain at home for a couple of days — even if that meant losing income.

“Within the week, it was just stuck in there,” they said. “So gray, so-so gray and at the throat, ardía, quemaba [it hurt, it burnt in Spanish], even in the house.”

Isabel is among dozens of west-siders The Salt Lake Tribune and KUER have interviewed during the past year to hear — in their own voices — what it’s like to live where air pollution can reach dangerous, even deadly, levels.

In previous installments of this series, we’ve covered the history of the west side’s air troubles, and the health and economic costs of bad air. Here, we discuss what experts and officials are offering as potential solutions, and the obstacles to making them happen.

Flor Isabel, seen here at their home in Kearns on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023, turns on the air purifier they had installed in their home last year.
Bethany Baker
The Salt Lake Tribune
Flor Isabel, seen here at their home in Kearns on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023, turns on the air purifier they had installed in their home last year.

‘It’s messing with our health’

Isabel only has to drive a few minutes from their home to reach Kennecott’s properties. Their family home is also a short drive away from the Great Salt Lake — a beautiful, they said, but now haunting body of water where drought would disproportionately affect its neighbors.

Isabel’s son, Xavier, shared their inhaler, an expensive item without health insurance. They got a new job that had health benefits, so their health is improving. But the breathing struggles persist, and with them more headaches and the inability to live a more active life.

On days when their health worries them, they calculate the cost of leaving Kearns. But they own their house, and home prices elsewhere in the valley feel out of reach.

“I can't leave it because there's nowhere else I could afford a house,” they said. “I've been there for nine years. I'm a single parent with four kids, so it's been our home. It has a lot of s---ty air, but the neighborhood’s … really, really awesome.”

Isabel is becoming more aware of how their home’s location influences their respiratory issues, and wishes elected officials could help mitigate air pollution. On Isabel’s list: More local air monitors to calculate the area’s air-quality index more precisely, installing more air purifiers in schools, and making medication more accessible for those who struggle — because of availability or finances — with scheduling doctor’s appointments.

They also want to see politicians speak about it.

“It's messing with our health in our daily lives,” Isabel said. “So why not expose it more, so that we – who are never brought into these conversations – can be aware of what's going on in our community?”

Flor Isabel holds up one of their inhalers they often use at their home in Kearns on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023.
Bethany Baker
The Salt Lake Tribune
Flor Isabel holds up one of their inhalers they often use at their home in Kearns on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023.

Move out? To where?

Isabel’s concerns about leaving their Kearns home are backed up by research. One of the conclusions of the Salt Lake City anti-displacement plan Thriving in Place is that those forced out by higher rents are unlikely to find cheaper rents in the city. Some of those pushed out have moved to places farther away, such as West Valley City and Tooele.

However, West Valley City had one of the zip codes with the highest increase in rent prices (more than 42%) during the pandemic, a pattern that other municipalities in western Salt Lake County are following, according to a Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute study. The average rent in a Kearns zip code also jumped more than 40% in that time, from $1,117 at the beginning of 2020 to $1,645 in 2022. Across Utah, house prices rose 51% from 2020 to 2022.

In the Thriving in Place study, researchers interviewed people who said they were planning on leaving the state or moving in with family to form multigenerational households, said Alessandro Rigolon, associate professor at the University of Utah’s Department of City of Metropolitan Planning.

“Housing affordability issues are actually making the [air] problem worse,” he said, “because more and more people cannot afford to live close to where they [work], and live farther and farther away and they drive more to get to their jobs.”

Rigolon said he worries about the state’s growth projections. If public transportation is not expanded, and newcomers are forced to use cars, the congestion would rise — and adding more lanes to freeways wouldn’t solve it.

Haze fills the air during an inversion in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2023.
Trent Nelson
The Salt Lake Tribune
Haze fills the air during an inversion in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2023.

Making a plan and sticking to it

Though the clouds coming out of industrial stacks are impactful visions, there’s a more pervasive issue that contributes to air pollution in the Salt Lake Valley: Cars.

Commuters from the suburbs circulate on three major west-side highways to get to the city. Some order food at drive-thrus without stepping outside, creating pollution hotspots. Many are forced to drive their cars because public transportation is not as accessible in many Utah areas.

The transportation sector contributes about 50% of PM 2.5 emissions in the valley during winter inversions, Rigolon said. That’s why the state should take action to reduce the number of car trips, fund public transportation and promote walking and biking.

“Unfortunately, we're talking about widening the freeway, so the decisions that are made now don't seem to take that sort of air quality component into account as much as research shows,” Rigolon said.

Rigolon pointed to a few solutions some European cities have implemented — such as limits on car traffic on bad air-quality days, or banning older cars that don’t meet emission standards from certain parts of metropolitan areas. The state of Utah, he said, hasn’t shown much appetite for such solutions.

“The car is so predominant everywhere that is potentially political suicide for people to propose limited car use to that extent,” he said. “And also in other places where those limitations to car-use happen, they have much better public transportation.”

Utah doesn’t have the authority to limit the number of cars on roadways. However, the Utah Legislature rejected efforts for a yearlong free-fare proposal in 2023. Such an action, Rigolon said, would go a long way to remove some cars from the roads, and improve air quality.

Rigolon also suggested another place to start: Using regulation or incentives to curb emissions of major polluters, such as U.S. Magnesium — whose bromide pollution increased inversion pollution by between 10% and 25% in January and February of 2017, according to a study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Utah Legislature took a whack at regulating U.S. Magnesium’s bromine emissions during the 2023 legislative session. Rep. Andrew Stoddard, a Democrat from Sandy, sponsored HB220, a bipartisan bill working to combat bromine and other halogen pollution released by the company.

Environmental advocacy group O2 Utah collaborated with Stoddard on the legislation. Eliza Cowie, O2 Utah’s policy director, said the report from NOAA motivated lawmakers “to act on this inversion issue.”

The organization wanted the Legislature to force companies producing halogens in six counties (Box Elder, Davis, Salt Lake, Tooele, Utah and Weber) to reduce emissions by 90%, but after negotiations the bill fell short of setting a reduction metric. Instead, the bill requires the Utah Division of Air Quality to conduct an analysis of where the halogen emissions are coming from, then the division will determine the amount emissions should be cut, and set up the “best available control technology emissions reduction plan” for the applicable industries by 2026.

O2 Utah’s work on clean air didn’t end with the watered-down passage of HB220. The organization assembled a “Prosperity 2030” plan that aims to cut statewide emissions in half by 2030. Cowie said the team is targeting emissions sources from transportation, industry and buildings.

“If we plug away at reducing emissions from those three sectors, we'll be able to accomplish that [goal],” she said.

Though O2 Utah’s plan doesn’t differentiate parts of the Wasatch Front, Cowie said that by focusing on those specific pollution sources, the plan should help the west side the most — because air quality is historically worse on the west side than in other areas of the Salt Lake Valley.

For Rigolon, the best way to drive down pollution would be to restrict more construction of polluting industries on the west side. However, he noted the infrastructure for such polluting industries is already there.

On the west side, Rigolon said, “you have the airports, you have freeways. So you would never build the inland port, for example, on the east side, just because you don't have all of these other pieces of infrastructure that make something like the inland port make economic sense just near them.”

The question becomes, he said, “How do we change the mindset about distributing those polluting land uses more equitably across the region, and not just in one set of neighborhoods?”

Haze fills the air during an inversion in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2023.
Francisco Kjolseth
The Salt Lake Tribune
Inversion conditions deteriorate air quality near Farmington as the Frontrunner train and highway traffic move along the I-15 corridor on Friday Dec. 3, 2021.

Eyes on transportation

When asked what solutions west-siders would like to see done to improve the air they breathe, a fan favorite was expanding access to public transportation. Last year, Gov. Spencer Cox proposed a zero-fare public transportation pilot program, but the Legislature shot down the request.

While ditching cars for the bus is on west-siders’ wish list, other modes of transportation, such as heavy duty vehicles and the trains that run 24/7, contribute to the air quality problem.

A big concern with the inland port operating on the west side is the additional pollution that comes with increased heavy-duty vehicle traffic. Cowie said O2 Utah is working with the Legislature to minimize the pollution emitted from heavy-duty vehicles, including semis and dump trucks. A 2021 Utah Division of Air Quality report found heavy-duty diesel vehicles make up 7.5% of vehicles on the road but produce more than 30% of the pollution.

“We really want to look at transferring those [vehicles] out, because that will have a massive impact on our air quality,” Cowie said.

The goal, Cowie said, is to electrify the fleets or move to natural gas. They hope to get federal funding and implement state incentives that encourage companies to transition to cleaner fuel.

Utah wouldn’t be the first majority Republican state to act on this issue. Texas has instituted an ”Clean Fleet Program” aimed at cleaning up air pollution caused by heavy-duty vehicles through grants and other subsidies.

Cowie’s group also is focusing on updating Union Pacific train switchers, which idle even when a train is not running, to cleaner gas. It’s not required now, Cowie said, for railroads to disclose what kind of gas the switchers or trains are guzzling. Some switchers could be using the dirtiest fuel, Tier 0, and others could be using Tier 4, the cleanest — but there is no mandate on what fuel they have to use. Cowie said lawmakers are willing to negotiate with Union Pacific about updating the switchers, instead of forcing them to compile with regulations.

“There's a lot of political appetite, and politicians are very interested in this issue,” Cowie said. “It’s a matter of figuring out what is the state's responsibility to put money towards something, and what is a private company who is making money off of keeping dirtier switchers or older trains on the tracks?”

Transition to clean energy

Logan Mitchell, climate scientist and energy analyst for the nonprofit group Utah Clean Energy, said an energy transition is underway, and may arrive sooner than expected: The propagation of clean energy and all-electric homes.

“I think it's going to happen in 20 years, maybe 30 years,” Mitchell said. “But I think we're going to start to see natural gas usage tail off.”

Jobs in the clean energy industry are booming, he said, and there’s an economic opportunity for the state to collect market share, and build new manufacturing facilities based around clean energy.

Regulations, such as the Clean Air Act amendments, which expanded control programs for smokestacks and tailpipes have helped improve air quality, Mitchell said. Between 1990 and 2020, the concentration of air pollutants have dropped nationally, according to the EPA; among them, 73% for carbon monoxide and 25% for ozone. The U.S. has also seen a decrease of 41% for annual fine particles since the year 2000. That has prevented 230,000 early deaths associated with PM 2.5 in 2020 and the exacerbation of asthma of 2.4 million people, a study from the EPA reads.

Mitchell added that he wonders whether federal standards will change with the current climate realities.

“Technically, we're not in violation of federal air quality standards anymore. We have gotten out of that,” he said. “At the same time, our ozone levels are getting worse because of wildfires — and because as it gets warmer, as climate change progresses, the chemical reactions [that create ozone] go faster in warmer temperatures.”

The ‘micro’ sources of pollution

Besides the major polluters the valley hosts, there are multiple clouds happening in neighborhoods; cars idling, traffic stopping and starting uphill, gas or diesel-powered gardening equipment and inefficient heating systems.

“We're responsible for between anywhere from 30% to 80% of our microenvironment,” said Daniel Mendoza, a research assistant professor in atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah and an adjunct assistant professor in internal medicine (pulmonary division) and city and metropolitan planning at the U.

For many in underserved communities, though, individual solutions to air pollution may be a luxury.

Mendoza has worked with Rep. Angela Romero and Sen. Luz Escamilla, both Democrats representing parts of the west side, to produce the Breathe Clean Festival. It’s an event tailored to the west side, to raise awareness and provide tools custom-made for the west side to face it.

Education is one of his priorities, Mendoza said, especially in spaces where talks about the environment seem out of reach.

“Air quality and our health and our environmental exposure should not be a privilege,” he said. “It should be a right for everyone.”

When events are held on the east side, Mendoza said, there often is a lot of enthusiasm, but many solutions — such as buying electric vehicles or solar panels — are “unattainable.”

“We educated our community and said: ‘Look, these are some of the challenges, but here's a wind installation kit,’” he said. “‘Here are low-flow showerheads [with Dominion Energy and Neighborworks]. In conjunction with Utah Clean Energy, here are LED bulbs.’”

These small steps, he said, have led community members to pursue other measures to improve the efficiency of their emissions.

Mendoza also has expanded a project he started with the University of Utah to get free furnace filter replacement in west-side homes to improve indoor air quality.

Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said he also believes education about personal emissions is key, as 13% of particulate and ozone emissions come from large industrial sources, he said. The rest come from homes, businesses and vehicles, as well as such items as paint and solvents.

The division, he said, is also working with the Legislature to provide incentives to help people change out equipment that would help ease individual emissions.

In a dryer, hotter climate with increasing dust events and ozone, Bird said, the state needs to put controls in place, such as a regulation on lawn and garden equipment (which the division is proposing to the Air Quality Board).

“We need to control those during our air-quality action days. And so we're continuing to identify what can be done, what is most effective,” he said, “and then putting those controls in place.”

The Olympics deadline

There’s a major incentive in Utah, with a deadline, to improve the area’s air quality: Salt Lake City is the preferred host for the 2034 Winter Olympics — and to qualify for the games, the state has to make an effort to clear the air.

The International Olympic Committee wants Utah to commit to moving toward 100% renewable energy, decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 50% and fully embrace public transportation by 2030 as a prerequisite for the IOC to officially name Utah the site for the games.

Different entities — such as the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, the Division of Environmental Quality (DEQ), health departments, and the Environmental Protection Agency — have devised a plan to address the pollution.

The most important element, according to the DEQ’s website, is the transportation demand management system. That system includes a set of regulations that, according to the Salt Lake City site, would help “influence residents’ and employees’ travel decisions” to decrease car trips and traffic congestion on peak hours.

Among the ways to “influence” those travel decisions: Fewer parking stalls in new development, requiring large employers to create strategies to work remotely, and to encourage the use of public transit.

Cowie believes the potential for Utah to host the 2034 Olympics has lit a fire under lawmakers on air quality. Republic Rep. Tyler Clancy has filed a bill this session to bring Utah closer to the IOC’s demands.

“We need to show the IOC that we're making tangible steps. It will take a lot of political will, but it's totally within our wheelhouse to succeed,” she said.

Spending political capital

When Richard Holman founded the Westside Coalition — a group of different representatives of Salt Lake City’s west-side neighborhoods— local leaders were immediately on board.

“We had a mission statement to advocate for the health, safety and quality of life of west side Salt Lake City residents,” Holman said. “And that rolls off my tongue because I've said it 5,000 times. But that was the role: Advocacy, activism, I don't care what you call it.”

At the same time, Holman was struggling with his health. Overwhelmed with air pollution, he often had to remain indoors with air purifiers so he could breathe.

After his oxygen absorption kept dropping at home, and being ill became a never-ending state, he and his wife were pushed to leave their recently upgraded Rose Park home to another one in Sandy. His advocacy work also changed.

“I hated it. I absolutely hated every minute of it,” he said, “I was leaving a lot of things that I really cared about with respect to issues, with respect to being a contributor, to resolving those issues on behalf of my neighbors and on behalf of the communities there.”

Still, he helped set the groundwork for an EPA study on environmental justice issues on the west side, and he still advises the coalition.

The coalition’s many efforts include sponsoring candidate forums for west-side residents, and pitching Salt Lake City as a good choice for federal funds to address environmental inequities.

Turner Bitton, chair of the Glendale Neighborhood Council (part of the Westside Coalition), is in constant contact with state and local officials who have the issue of air quality in the front of their minds, he said. However, the center of power in Utah isn’t necessarily centered in Salt County, where air quality is a prominent concern.

Bitton predicted that “as our population grows, as vehicle traffic increases and as building emissions increase, … building emissions will soon be the biggest source of … air pollution.” Local leaders, he said, are “very receptive to that. Sometimes state leadership doesn’t listen.”

Bitton said he’s hopeful for the future, and for good reason: A new generation of young people — and moms, dads and grandparents — running for office, advocating for a better environment. He said he predicts action to assess the damage done by heavy industries, and a national investment to battle climate change.

“Trillions of dollars have gone into the economy to shift us in a different direction and to build a more inclusive economy centered around clean energy,” Bitton said. “They're also things that in 10 years, in 20 years, my kids are going to look back and say that there was a moment in time where we decided we were going to solve these environmental justice issues.”

Editor’s note: This story is part of Reaching for Air — a collaboration of The Salt Lake Tribune, KUER and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, which explores air quality along the Salt Lake Valley’s west side. If you would like to share your story, please complete this survey or leave a voice message at 385-419-2470.

Corrected: February 3, 2024 at 4:34 PM MST
This story has been corrected to reflect the accurate spelling of Rep. Tyler Clancy's name.
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