Cherise Udell

How Ultra-Conservative Utah Became An Unlikely Bastion Of Environmental Activism

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"How Ultra-Conservative Utah Became An Unlikely Bastion Of Environmental Activism"

When organizers of a late January clean air rally in Salt Lake City started making preparations more than a month before, they hoped for perfect weather. And they didn’t mean the kind of bluebird day that Utah likes to promote alongside its boast of having the “Greatest Snow on Earth.”

“We were in the odd position of hoping for air pollution,” said Dr. Brian Moench, an anesthesiologist who heads Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “And boy did we ever get it.”

Moench and his colleagues got more than a lovely backdrop of nasty polluted air to punctuate their rallying points about the state’s dirty air and the need to combat it more aggressively. They also got more than 4,000 people to the demonstration at the state capitol, which would be a very good turnout almost anywhere. In Utah — one of the most conservative states in the union, where the best a Democratic presidential candidate has done in the last five elections was 34 percent of the vote and fewer than 20 percent of state legislators are Democratic — it was a very, very good turnout.

Utah residents may not have much of a reputation as rabble rousers, and the political coordinates of its governor and many legislative leaders are somewhere in the Attila the Hun neighborhood, but something is afoot in the Beehive State. Thanks to its unique geography and urban structure that requires long-distance commuting — spewing fossil fuel emissions into the air — Utah is home to some of the worst short-term particle pollution in the country. But a growing political movement to clean up the state’s notorious foul air is flexing some serious muscle.

In his recent State of the State address, Gov. Gary R. Herbert, nobody’s idea of a progressive, promised to speed the transition to Tier 3 vehicle and fuel standards, a move that “would lower the sulfur content of gasoline from 30 parts per million to 10 parts per million and require cleaner-burning emission controls on all new vehicles.” Herbert also asked the state air quality board to limit wood burning in high air pollution areas, and said he would require less auto travel and more mass transit travel by state employees.

Air quality, Herbert said, “is a challenge we all share, and we all share in the responsibility to fix it.” The governor also has endorsed legislation to repeal a state law that keeps state agencies from going further on clean air measures than federal rules. And his budget for next year includes $18 million for clean air initiatives, much of it aimed at helping small businesses and school districts to reduce their emissions.

A recent poll by the Salt Lake Tribune found that by a three-to-one margin residents favor tougher pollution rules on industry, and that a majority are increasingly concerned about air quality and are willing to change their driving habits. Those results reflect the fact that the Wasatch Front sometimes has air pollution spikes worse than Beijing, though on average the Chinese capital is far worse than Utah cities.

Utah’s air pollution problems center on fine airborne particulates known as PM2.5, which means they are less than 2.5 micrometers in size — less than 1/30th the width of a human hair. The particulates come from burning fossil fuels and wood, along with other industrial activities, and are the primary cause of haze. Their small size mean these particulates can easily lodge in the lungs and, as a result, they pose many serious health risks, particularly for children and the elderly, including asthma and heart attacks.

Though monitoring of particulates by Utah state government show the pollution improving in the last two decades, levels along the Wasatch Front and a smaller region in north Utah, exceed federal limits. Last winter in Utah brought an exceptionally bad season of temperature inversions that trap haze and 21 days when particulate levels exceeded the federal clean air limits.

And politicians beyond the governor’s office are taking notice. Salt Lake City mayor Ralph Becker devoted his entire state of the city address last month to the problems of air quality. “Look out the window and contemplate our future,” said Becker as he endorsed more public transit funding, greater access to low-sulphur gasoline, higher air quality standards, an increase in the gasoline tax and better energy efficient building codes.

Legislators have introduced more than two dozen bills to tackle the dirty air problem, ranging from tax incentives for mass transit use and electric vehicles, grants to replace older polluting school buses, facilitating charging stations for electric vehicles, funds to convert homes that solely use wood stoves to gas, and funds for better public education and research program.

Asked about the chances of the legislature taking significant steps on air quality this year, state Rep. Patrice Arent said, “I think they are good because the public is demanding that. The good news is the legislature recognizes there is a problem. We are taking it seriously. I anticipate we will have meaningful legislation this year. Will it solve the problem? No, there is no magic bullet.”

Last winter’s spate of bad air days has been one spur to action this year. Others include stepped up activism by Utah doctors and a mothers group called Utah Moms for Clean Air. It’s also becoming increasingly clear to the state’s leaders that foul air is hurting the economy and its ability to attract businesses and a skilled workforce. Both the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Corporation of Utah stress the need to attack pollution as an economic strategy.

Moench’s group, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, has spent the last seven years educating policy makers and the public on the serious health impacts of particulate pollution — a situation that, in his words, is far more than “an annoyance, an aesthetic issue.”

“We’ve dug into the medical literature from the last 10 to 12 years, 3,000 plus studies that indicate air pollution is a much greater public health threat than people had thought,” said Moench. “We see here in Salt Lake the things that are confirmed by thousands of medical studies: increased rates of sudden deaths, strokes, and heart attacks.”

The doctors group is now cranking up a campaign against the state government’s analysis that just 11 percent of the air pollution problem stems from industrial sites like oil refineries and the huge copper mine southwest of Salt Lake City operated by Kennecott Utah Copper Corporation, a division of Rio Tinto Group.

Utah Moms for Clean Air, meanwhile, is tapping into the deep seated family values in Utah, where more than 62 percent of the population is Mormon. “Mothers are sacred in Utah,” says the group’s founder, Cherise Udell. “There is a heroism about a mother here, a sacredness … No one is going to challenge a mother on her motives, no one is going say you a not an expert on your own child. So we’ve had incredibly strong voices.”

So far, to activists, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has shown less than stellar leadership in the air pollution issue. Though private discussions between activists and the church hierarchy are continuing, the Mormon spokesman’s response to a recent query about the pollution problem by the Salt Lake Tribune was “curt and bewildering,” said Moench, a boilerplate “all humankind are stewards over the Earth” response.

Though the LDS church is less dominant than it used to be, it still plays a major cultural and political role in the state.

“If the LDS church were to make it clear to their followers that fossil fuel consumption has some real downsides, if they were to send that clear message to their membership, you can be guaranteed the political atmosphere would change almost overnight,” Moench said.

That kind of direct involvement by the church hasn’t happened yet, and anything is possible in a legislature where one lawmaker recently introduced a bill to limit the state’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, saying that CO2 “concentrations reached 600 parts per million at the time of the dinosaurs and they did quite well.” But more mainstream political leaders like Gov. Herbert now recognize that, even in conservative Utah, they need to take heed of public opinion and do something to ease the state’s air pollution crisis.

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