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Utah's PM 2.5 Pollution Down, But Environmentalists Warn Against Celebrating Too Soon

Photo of air pollution over the Great Salt Lake.
Brian Albers / KUER
For the first time in over a decade, the levels of the fine particulates found in northern Utah's winter inversions are in line with federal air quality standards. Photo from KUER archives shows air pollution in the Salt Lake valley.

Levels of the fine particulates found in northern Utah’s winter inversions have decreased over three years, putting the area in line with federal air quality standards for the first time in over a decade.

Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that between 2016 and 2018, an area stretching from Box Elder County to the southern end of the Salt Lake Valley saw eight or fewer days that exceeded a certain level of particulates known as PM 2.5.

That means the entire state now meets federal standards for PM 2.5, said Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Donna Kemp Spangler.

“It’s really good news,” she said. “It means that the strategies we put in place — that the Air Quality Board put in place — are working.”

But that doesn’t mean the state can stop making progress, Spangler said. Air quality monitoring will continue for at least another 20 years to ensure levels stay at or above federal standards.

“We have to show that we continue to meet those standards 20 years down the road, especially as our population grows,” she said.

But some environmentalists cautioned against celebrating the standards attainment too soon.

“While it’s good that we get this determination, we don’t want people to jump the gun and think that our air is magically better and we can do whatever we want now,” said Grace Olscamp, spokeswoman with environmental group HEAL Utah.

The group attributed the dip in particulate matter largely to “favorable weather conditions,” meaning that inversion spells between 2016 and 2018 were shorter than average, which led to “cleaner, clearer winters.”

Olscamp also pointed to state ozone levels, which still exceed EPA air quality standards along the Wasatch Front and the Uintah Basin. The particulate is most commonly associated with summer weather air pollution.

To reduce summer and winter air pollution episodes across the state, “we need to continue at all levels — individually, our businesses, our industry, even our government need to continue to reduce our emissions pretty significantly,” Olscamp said.

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