We’re Number One!
Ryan Summerlin January 11, 2013
Despite bringing world-class procrastination skills to the table, I finally had enough of a backlog of stuff that had to be done in Salt Lake that I was forced into making the trip. I knew in advance that it was smoggy. The weatherman on TV had said it was an "air action day," whatever that means. Frankly, it looked to me like the problem was that there wasn’t enough action in the stagnant air.
It was all that I had expected and then some. A week later, I’m still hacking up charcoal briquettes. A lot of you make the trip every day and spend hours working down in the polluted stew. Most of my family live down there, breathing it 24/7. Ugh.
There actually was a little breeze the day I made the trip, and the cloud of crud was crashing over Parleys Summit like waves hitting a rocky shore. It was thick enough that I expected to feel an impact as the car penetrated it. I switched the heater over to "recirculate" and more or less held my breath for the afternoon.
If you are going to have air pollution, you might as well go for the gold, and Utah has clearly done that. We are Number One in the U.S. when it comes to crappy air quality. The five cities topping the list of worst air quality in the nation this last couple of weeks have all been in Utah. Grand Junction, Colorado, has tried to break in there, but for the most part, the five worst in the nation have been Salt Lake, Provo, Logan, Brigham City and Ogden. Whoo-hoo, a clean sweep.
So how dirty is dirty? Beijing, the poster child for polluted cities, had a PM2.5 concentration of 67 micrograms. Readings in Utah ranged from 60 to 80 micrograms. At risk of committing science, PM2.5 is a measure of tiny little particles of junk in the air. They are small enough that our natural bodily systems for cleaning junk out of our lungs can’t catch them. These particles get through our natural filters and just gum up the works.
The comparison to Beijing is a little unfair. This is a measure of only the little lung-destroying particulate matter, and China’s air is full of all kinds of other chemical toxins in addition to the grit. Our air might be crunchier, but theirs is more flavorful. Los Angeles, the city that invented smog, had readings that ranged from the low 30s to a couple of stations that were over 100, but the general air quality situation in Los Angeles was color-coded "good" on the map. No matter how you look at it, we have world-class air pollution along the Wasatch Front.
For a good part of every winter (and increasingly during the summer), Salt Lake is in violation of EPA air-quality standards. Nobody knows what to do about it. There isn’t an obvious fix. Geography makes it difficult to deal with. The mountains surrounding the big cities of Utah block movement of the air. The temperature inversion (which you experienced firsthand if you were up skiing earlier this week) traps the air in the valley, and nothing can get in to mix it up. The winter fog is a completely natural condition. All the crap we pump into it every day is not. But the mountains aren’t going anywhere.
The inversions tend to be episodic here rather than constant. The annual average for PM2.5 in the Salt Lake area is a very healthy 10 micrograms. The storm of the last couple of days has cleared the gunk out for a while, though it will rebuild quickly. The state declares "Air Action Days" and we are all supposed to do something, though nobody really knows what. Hold your breath? Park the car and stand out on the curb, where it’s thickest, breathing it in while waiting for a bus?
Most of the pollution now comes from cars. Years ago, we used to be able to blame Kennecott Copper and Geneva Steel. But Geneva is gone and Kennecott has enough pollution-control equipment that it now plays kind of a bit part. The starring role is all of our cars, and all of our furnaces, and the coal-fired power plants that run the lights (and the ski lifts and snowmaking equipment that we enjoy in relatively clean air above the toxic stew).
Shutting down modern life to park the cars for the winter isn’t realistic. For a hundred years, Western cities were built around the idea of people driving cars, and there isn’t a practical mass-transit retrofit that doesn’t involve reconstructing Logan to look like Chicago. So the official position seems to be that we suck it up, literally, and hope that there will be storms often enough to stir the pot. Cough.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.