City to tackle burning issue, perhaps
February 17, 2015
Based on his conversations with Park City Building Department staff, "they’re on board for this," Abbott says.
"First we’re curious to see if Council approves it. Then we’re curious to try it out in Park City if they approve it. And then we see potential for Snyderville Basin or the whole county having a market like that in place. I think it’s a better solution than an outright ban because there’s opportunity built out of it," he says.
The City Council’s discussion would come on the heels of a six-month moratorium on the installation of wood-burning appliances in the Snyderville Basin that was passed Wednesday by the Summit County Council. The moratorium is designed to give county staff time to review current regulations designed to protect air quality.
Abbott says he likes the deliberate approach taken by the County Council. "I would be seeking something similar with our Council, that we’re not just drawing a line in the sand, that we’re spending some time to assess the situation before we make any determinations like that."
In neighboring Salt Lake County, where temperature inversions can trap emissions for weeks at a time, the debate over air quality has been raging since the early 1900s. In the mid-1980s, about the time that Telluride passed its ordinance, television meteorologist Mark Eubank, speaking to the Park City Rotary Club, warned that the Snyderville Basin could be facing some of the same issues.
Rich Bullough, Summit County health director, says that the Snyderville Basin still doesn’t have the air-quality problems faced by Wasatch Front residents. But, he adds, the writing is on the wall.
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"We can all look across that (Snyderville) Basin when there’s an inversion and you can see a haze. It’s important to note that we don’t exceed federal standards. The only times in the last few years we’ve exceeded the federal standard for PM 2.5 (particulates) was during a dust storm, a big dust event, and there were two of them. Our air quality is still pretty good," Bullough says.
"The important point here is the strategies that we’re putting in place now are aimed at trying to assure our future," he says. "And Mark Eubank years ago was absolutely on target by saying we are going to have a problem. We’ve got two major highways that come through the center of our county. We’ve got growth in Snyderville that is emerging we’re on the cusp of another boom. We’ve got increased traffic, increased transportation of fuel and oil … Now is the time for us to really do whatever we can do to try to assure that our future doesn’t reflect what’s being experienced all around us right now. That is not where we want to be."
Studies along the Wasatch Front consistently point to vehicles as a major source of air pollution. In response, Salt Lake City and many of its neighbors have adopted mandatory emissions-testing programs. Bullough says he is often asked why Summit County doesn’t follow suit.
"The reason we don’t have an emissions-testing program is because a large proportion in fact the majority of miles driven in Summit County are driven by cars not registered in Summit County," he says, pointing to the traffic on I-80 and US 40, which includes commuters driving up from the Wasatch Front.
"And then, at least as importantly and probably more importantly, almost all vehicles (registered) in Summit County are newer than 1996," Bullough says. "And that is the year when the check-engine lights were established in vehicles, and on-board emissions-testing systems. And in those vehicles that have those systems, the proportion of vehicles that you capture that are actually violating emissions standards are infinitesimal, less than a percent. No matter what direction we look at this, it doesn’t pencil out. It doesn’t make any sense for Summit County."
Bullough says, on a long-term basis, emissions-testing programs usually make money for local health departments. "But that’s probably not the reason to do it."
Phil Bondurant, Summit County’s environmental health director, agrees. "We have this expectation that if emissions were implemented, that our air would be next to perfect, it would be crystal clear, when in fact the data would show that the change would be very minimal, if it shows any change at all," he says.
For the past three years, the Summit County Health Department has been monitoring ozone and particulate levels using two monitors, one at Quinn’s Junction and one in Coalville. Bullough says some local residents were ambivalent about buying the monitors in the first place.
"You know, people sometimes don’t want to necessarily know if we have a problem," he says. "We’re not a nonattainment area, so we don’t have to legally measure air quality. We’re not a county over 50,000 people, and so the state doesn’t measure air quality. So the decision had to be made: Do we want to not know, or do we want to purchase our own monitors and find out. And my feeling is, I kind of equate this information to a food label. You should have the information, and then you can base a decision on that information. But the notion of not wanting information doesn’t make any sense."
Based on readings from those monitors, the health department posts ozone advisories on its website, http://www.summitcountyhealth.org.
"High levels of ozone can damage lung tissue," Bullough says. "For the everyday person, being able to visualize a sunburn in your lungs is accurate, and that literally is what it does. It damages the tissue."
He says that ozone tends to spike in the middle of the afternoon, when the temperature is the hottest.
"We don’t necessarily want to tell people, ‘Don’t exercise,’ but we want to be able to provide information to people so they can make a choice. And if they have an opportunity to exercise in the morning, when ozone levels are lower then we think it’s important for them to be able to make that choice."
Bullough says the website usually includes real-time data from the two monitors, although they are currently out of service for recalibration. The health department also uses the website to post other information such as an education campaign specifically focused on check-engine lights.
Although the monitors haven’t shown violations of federal standards for particulates, Bullough is quick to point out that wood smoke doesn’t always show up in the particulate measurements.
"I used to think, do we necessarily want to go after wood burning when we don’t violate 2.5 (particulate) standards?" Bullough says. "Two things have influenced my thought on that. If we allow future construction, which by all indications is going to boom, if we allow all of those units to put in wood-burning fireplaces, is that a good thing? Probably not, for long-term air quality. And secondly, that second-hand exposure: If my neighbor is burning wood, I’m at risk, increased risk of cancer, increased risk of upper-respiratory ailments, asthma, you go down the list, because of that exposure. … Wood smoke is toxic, and exposure to it is toxic. That’s a conversation that other communities have had and I think we’re justified in having it here."