The Blame Game
Who or what is the source of the toxic air along the Wasatch Front? It’s hard to say when everyone points at another.
Cherice Udell, of Utah Moms for Clean Air, thought the fight for air quality in Utah had turned a corner.
During specific days of January 2013, Logan, Brigham City and Provo were ranked by the Environmental Protection Agency as having the most unhealthy air in the nation. The worst inversion in recent memory had galvanized public opinion against legislative indifference to the issue.
Marjorie McCloy gathered a petition of 8,500 signatures in less than 10 days, Udell says, to ask Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to act against polluters and promote public transportation. Environmental and sustainability studies student Carl Ingwell was so angered by “the difference between public opinion and public policy” when it came to air quality that he set up a Facebook page to get friends “to write the governor a letter and say, ‘Hey, we’re sick of this, let’s do something,’” he says. To his amazement, 1,500 people quickly signed up.
So, when a reporter approached Udell on the steps of the Utah Capitol with a pie chart from the Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ), which, among other things, monitors what’s in the air, and said, “Industry is only making 11 percent of the inversion, don’t you think cars are a major part of the problem?” she was dumbfounded. “I was incensed by it—really, really angry about such misleading material.”
The pie chart is titled “The Air We All Breathe,” and shows that vehicles are responsible for 57 percent of air pollution. According to the chart, gases from “area sources,” such as houses, small businesses and buildings, account for 32 percent, and industry—including power plants, oil and gas refineries, and mining—no more than 11 percent.
“Disingenuous at best, political propaganda at worst,” Udell says. “How can we tackle the problem when they are pointing at the individual citizen driving his car, when it’s much more diverse than that, when industry is responsible for so much more than that?”
DAQ director Bryce Bird disagrees. It’s all a question of perspective, he says. “How you slice the pie depends on the answer you get.”
While clean-air activists have regularly peppered The Salt Lake Tribune with editorials and comments about the devastating impact the air quality has on Utahns’ lives, Bird argues that it’s the DAQ’s increasing effectiveness that has spurred much of the debate about clean air. DAQ has upgraded its monitoring efforts, he says, to provide “real time” readings of PM2.5 and ozone concentrations in various locations across the valley. “In some respects, the public perception and outcry reflects our efforts to get information out there,” he says.
The pie chart, Bird says, looks at a five-county airshed stretching from the southern end of Utah County to Cache County, to show “what’s being emitted on a typical winter day on the valley floors.” Since Utah County and Cache County have little in the way of an industrial base, automobiles are responsible for the lion’s share of the air pollution in those areas.
In Salt Lake County, according to the DAQ’s figures for 2011, 9.3 percent of the total monitored pollution, including PM2.5, carbon monoxide and mono-nitrogen oxides, comes from “point sources”: stationary, commercial and industrial sources that emit more than 100 tons of monitored pollutants a year.
According to the DAQ, Kennecott Copper Mine, a mining, smelter and refining operation, is responsible for 49 percent of Salt Lake County’s pollution from point sources. Kennecott spokesman Kyle Bennett says Kennecott, which is owned by United Kingdom-based mining corporation Rio Tinto, has long been committed to finding “action-orientated solutions” to reducing its emissions, whether in the form of a billion-dollar smelter, “which continues to be one of the cleanest and most modern smelters in the world,” by not operating its own power plant in the winter months, by distributing “a limited number of transit passes on red-air days” or supporting idling-reduction across its companies.
While on X96.3 FM’s morning show Radio From Hell, student activist Ingwell asked Bird to break down the sources of pollution for Salt Lake City. Bird told him that over the course of a year, responsibility breaks down into one-third industrial, one-third vehicles and one-third sources such as houses and businesses.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established National Ambient Air Quality Standards for air pollutants, including PM2.5. If the air quality in a geographic area does not meet standards, the state must develop comprehensive plans to reduce pollutant concentrations to a safe level.
The Utah DAQ’s submission to the Environmental Protection Agency to bring five counties currently above the safe level for PM2.5 into line states that “stationary sources […] represent at most about 20 percent of the emissions contributing to excessive PM2.5 concentrations during winter,” further complicating the pollution picture.
Part of the problem, says Brian Moench of the nonprofit Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, is that the focus on the winter inversion leads to the perception that this is an issue that only arises in the dead of winter and a week or so in July, when wildfires contribute heavily to haze. So, he says, when industry seeks new permits to expand, “that doesn’t seem such an egregious issue.”
He argues that the DAQ—which regulates and monitors air quality, issues permits for new and modified pollution sources, and also pursues compliance—is chronically underfunded.
DAQ has three sources of funding, with equal parts from federal grants, emission fees it charges businesses, and the General Fund. The Legislature cut funding for the DAQ by 20 percent between 2008 and 2010. That meant eliminating staff positions, which in turn led to a slowdown in permit-processing.
Moench says that in the 2013 session, one bill “emasculated an already weak Air Quality board,” removing a physician and a professional engineer, neither connected to industry, and replaced them with one position: a physician, professional engineer or scientist not with industry. The bill also removed an environmentalist, reducing the board to nine members. When his nonprofit and others protested Rio Tinto’s application to expand several years ago, they took their case to the Air Quality board “and lost by one vote,” he says.
Bottom line, Moench says, DAQ is hobbled, caught between pro-business legislators and a governor “who has a real love affair with fossil fuels and doesn’t want to educate himself about this being a public-health concern.” Herbert, he argues, sees the state’s future as built on fossil fuels. The agency’s lack of effective policing of industry reflects “a culture of capitulation to business in Utah which stems from the Legislature and the Governor’s Office.”
Bird says his agency’s ultimate focus is meeting federal regulatory requirements and, when Utah is not meeting the feds’ health-based standards, “bringing it back as quickly as possible.”
In 2011, Moench and Udell’s nonprofits joined forces with WildEarth Guardians, the Sierra Club and Western Resource Advocates to use the Clean Air Act to try to force Kennecott to reduce its emissions, filing a lawsuit in federal court against the company. The lawsuit says that Kennecott has expanded its operations from moving 150 million tons of material annually to as much as almost 200 million tons a year.
The Air Quality board and DAQ had approved these increases—Kennecott argued that it has larger haulage trucks so the higher levels of dust emissions from the moving of material was offset by the reduced volume of vehicle emissions—but Joro Walker of the Western Resource Advocates says that in 1994, the original State Implementation Plan set a federally enforceable cap of 150 million tons, which Kennecott had since violated. “I really think the issue is when we need to reduce emissions, it’s bad policy to allow industries to increase their emissions.”
Kennecott spokesman Bennett says his company is “very confident in our position. We comply with all laws and regulations regarding air quality and emissions.” He adds that the mine has been and “continues to be in constant compliance with permits established for us.”
Kennecott, however, is only one source of industrial emissions that worries Moench and other activists. In 2009, three zones in Utah—Salt Lake City, Provo and Cache Valley—were declared by the federal government to be in “nonattainment” of the safe levels of PM2.5. By September 2012, when DAQ submitted its provisional plans to bring those areas into attainment of the national health standards—the deadline for the final draft was December 2012, which DAQ missed—it concluded it would not be able to do so until 2020.
“This means that by the agency’s own calculations, a child born today will be exposed to air pollution that jeopardizes her health in significant and long-lasting ways for the first eight years of her life,” wrote Western Resource Advocates’ Walker in a Nov. 1, 2012, letter to DAQ.
Walker takes a hard line with DAQ “failing to undertake a thorough and robust review” of controls it was aware of but has not as yet implemented. “Rather than exhibiting a true concern for the well-being of the people who live across the Wasatch Front, DAQ has merely postponed hard decisions and rigorous action and has condemned the children and the elderly of Utah to shortened lives, reduced quality of life and a myriad of adverse health conditions caused by PM2.5 air pollution.”
The EPA sent the DAQ detailed and extensive criticism on its proposals, which the DAQ is now working to address. But Moench finds it disturbing that the DAQ had industrial polluters prepare their own proposals, based on cost-effectiveness, for what they would do to reduce emissions.
“It was really an eye-opener going through the EPA’s comments” on the State Improvement Plan, Moench says. “It identified so many areas where Kennecott and the oil refineries could do more and where they were not being asked. It was basically a sham. They were allowing industries to identify themselves what they thought was cost-effective and, by doing that, eliminating most of what they could do to reduce emissions.”
Bird blames the issue on “a lack of communication” of the strengths and weaknesses of evaluations of emission-reduction proposals and says his agency has hired an independent engineering consulting firm to help the DAQ estimate costs for the larger projects that industry needs to look at to bring down pollution.
Still, Bird anticipates that, at best, industrial pollution can be cut by no more than 5 percent. No one wants to regulate jobs out of the state, Bird says. “Economic development is also an indicator of good health. People have good insurance, they purchase cleaner cars.”
The largest source of future reductions will come from transportation and area sources, Bird predicts. He also cites 8,000 tons annually coming from consumer products, such as solvents, perfumes and aerosols used to kill wasps or clean ovens, all of which have a greener alternative that Utah could import. “Everything is a drop, but once you get up to a few thousand drops, you make a big difference. No strategy is too small,” he says. “We’ll take small improvements from anyone.”