Air Apparent 

If the best things in life are free, why is clean air along the Wasatch Front so precious?

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Anecdotal stories dealing with quasi-scientific subjects are among the worst ways to kick off a column, mostly because they’re sitting ducks for dissenting arguments. Nevertheless, here it goes.

A young family I know once lived on Salt Lake City’s west side, deep in the valley floor. Whether because of fragile health in infancy or because of the ozone pollution during winter and summer, their young daughter suffered frequent asthma attacks. Something had to be done. As it turned out, a simple move eastward and across town was just the ticket. Raised up from the valley floor and into cleaner air, their daughter’s condition improved markedly.

Coincidence? Perhaps. But consider the number of times you and your friends have driven to Park City for an escape from Salt Lake City’s wintertime inversions. Or the number of times you’ve driven to Park City, or even all the way to Wyoming, to escape not just the smoldering heat but that smoldering feeling you may have felt in your lungs. Certainly plenty of people drive to Wyoming for plenty of other reasons: fireworks, real beer and pornography among them. But certainly you also get my point. If you don’t, a thick layer of ozone blanketing the Salt Lake Valley as you descend from Park City’s mountains is a moribund reminder.

It matters little how many lifestyle magazines rate Salt Lake City best this or best that. The fact that air quality in Salt Lake County sucks so bad would be a lot easier to take if we didn’t have to inhale the stuff. And that’s an understatement. Air quality in Salt Lake County doesn’t just suck, folks. If more sophisticated adjectives do the trick, let’s just call our air quality atrocious, abominable, disgraceful and'in moral terms'shameful.

Our county has consistently topped Environmental Protection Agency rankings of the nation’s worst air quality. If you’ve paid attention at all to these matters, that’s no news. But our problem is statewide. A “Plagued by Pollution” report, courtesy of U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), covered in our daily newspapers lately, found that in 2004, Utah had more “soot days” exceeding the daily fine-particle health standard than any other state.

Don’t trust U.S. PIRG’s findings due to its sterling reputation among liberal activists? Log on to the American Lung Association’s Website, where the statistics are just as dire. According to its findings, Salt Lake County ranked No. 9 among 25 counties most polluted by short-term particle pollution last year, while Utah County ranks No. 19. Cache County isn’t on last year’s list, but it busted all sorts of records in 2004 when its spike in fine-particle pollution rose to more than double the health standard. Cast back and you might remember the infamous news reports that Logan officials at the time asked motorists to refrain patronizing drive-through business during the winter so particulates might be kept at a minimum.

Part of our unfortunate curse, of course, is down to our unique climate and geography, i.e., wintertime inversions of warm air above trapping cold air below. These put a seal on the valley, resulting in a kind of gas chamber that’s exacerbated the longer the inversion lasts and the more we drive. Cars contribute approximately half of our valley’s pollution. Since we view driving and car ownership as a virtual birthright, the more manageable equation is industry. It’s also an equation the current administration has failed to deal with.

The tragedy of air quality is that it’s viewed by most people as a wonky, policy-geek issue when, in fact, it should be everyone’s business. Fine-particle pollution is no light matter, especially to those old and young. As the American Lung Association points out, people under the age of 18 and over the age of 65 are most vulnerable to the adverse affects of ozone and particle pollution. We’re talking about pediatric and adult asthma. Salt Lake County is home to more than 75,000 elderly and a whopping 279,000 people 18 years of age and under.

Our state is home to many paradoxes, the first being our professed concern for children even when we fund public education like misers. Our professed concern for children in light of our state’s overwhelming support for President Bush’s policies is another paradox. If we really cared about children and, by extension, their health, it’s baffling that we support Bush’s policies concerning national air quality. And it doesn’t take a genius to realize air is no respecter of state boundary lines.

Critics of the current administration make a lot of hay about Bush’s cleverly titled Clear Skies Act, designed to dull the teeth of the Clean Air Act. But as reporter Bruce Barcott revealed in an April 4, 2004, article for The New York Times Magazine, one of the biggest battles in favor of cleaner air was lost in November 2002 when, with little notice or publicity, Bush’s EPA appointees announced a complete gutting of the Clean Air Act’s new-source review provisions for reducing pollution from almost three-quarters of the nation’s power plants. And years before that, when Ralph Nader supporters spouted the lie that there was “no difference” between Al Gore and George W. Bush as presidential candidates, Bush swallowed whole $100,000 campaign contribution checks from utility- and energy-industry insiders. By the time Bush appointed former utility trade lobbyist Jeffrey Holmstead assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation, the fate of the Clean Air Act’s most important provisions was sealed. Also effectively gutted were pending lawsuits initiated during the Clinton administration against seven electricity companies, mostly in the Midwest and South, found to be the worst violators of Clean Air Act provisions.

In other words folks, Bush’s Clear Skies Act, while still a bad idea by itself, is a ruse. The real damage to air quality was accomplished years ago, when few were paying attention. But as long as we can still draw a breath, we can still pay attention.

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