In the winter of 2006–2007, I was utterly disgusted by our local air quality in Salt Lake City, which too often tasted like metal and smelled like gunpowder. On red alert days, I felt as if I was locking my young daughters in a windowless room full of chain smokers. And sure enough, a new group, called Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE), held a press conference in March 2007 confirming that my mama intuition was nearly as good as a mama grizzly’s, who senses a hunter near her cubs.
Breathing Salt Lake City’s dirty air during a winter inversion is like smoking cigarettes. UPHE explained that air pollution acted much like involuntary smoking because it had virtually all of the same health consequences of smoking about a quarter pack a day. The doctors estimate that between 1,000 and 2,000 Utahns die prematurely each year as a result of our smoggy air.
The image of my baby with a cigarette dangling from her toothless mouth was enough to move me to action. Utah Moms for Clear Air was born that day — a two-second inspiration — that began with a simple but heartfelt email to about a hundred local moms inviting them to join together to make Utah’s air cleaner and safer for our babes.
The response was phenomenal. Within a minute of hitting the send button, I received my first response, “Yes, please count me in.” By the end of the day, my inbox was flooded with emails from mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and grandparents all essentially saying, “thank you for standing up and taking initiative.” Four years later, the emails haven’t stopped.
In that first month, Utah Moms for Clean Air recruited over 300 volunteers. With babies on our hips and toddlers in tow, we we flooded the Department of Air Quality and made our voices heard at the Air Quality Board hearing on the health affects of pollution. We held our first standing-room-only public meeting, met with senators and Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, and were in the news nearly every day. We clearly struck a nerve in our community, which had suffered too long, too silently, almost as if the blanket of smog had choked our voices and dulled our instincts.
Four years later, we mamas are a lot more educated about the science around air pollution and its health impacts, and we are substantially more savvy about the regulatory and legislative process in which decisions about our air and our health are made daily. We also know who the biggest polluters are in our state and are successfully applying mom-powered pressure to get them to clean up their messes.
This past spring, I traveled to London with another mom to attend the annual shareholders meeting of Rio Tinto, the British mining giant. We told the CEO and board that they’d made a big mess in Utah and it was high time they take responsibility and clean it up. If we insist our children take responsibility for their messes, why shouldn’t we insist a huge multinational corporation do the same? During a post-meeting cocktail reception, I congratulated Rio Tinto’s CEO, Tom Albanese, for his stunning 2010 profit of 14 billion dollars. Then I added with a sweet mama smile, “With that profit, you have a very comfortable cushion with which to do the right thing and clean-up your mining operation in Utah. If you do, you will sleep better at night. If you don’t, you can expect to be hearing from a lot more mothers — and these are not your 1950’s Leave It to Beaver mamas. They are like grizzly bear mamas who feel that their cubs are being threatened. Grizzly bear mamas do not engage in fights often, but when they do, they tend to win.” The look on his jowly face was worth a million bucks — wait, make that a billion.
Through this journey, I have also come to learn that mothers united together are the most powerful voice advocating for clean air. After all, what is more basic than a mother protecting her child? It is in our blood to protect our babies and society expects us to do so. Mothers really are in a special moral position to advocate for clean air. Our intent is simple: to ensure that our children, whose lives are entrusted to us, have a healthy environment in which to grow and flourish.
Mothers also transcend the political process because our agenda is so transparent. We scare the bejezzus out of politicians who would like to just ignore the environmental advocacy community but cannot ignore Utah Moms for Clean Air because:
- They love our home baked muffins and;
- Mothers defy political, racial, socio-economic and religious categorization so therefore cannot easily be dismissed.
Utah Moms for Clean Air firmly believes every child has the right to breathe clean air. Our mission statement is to “use the power of moms to clean-up Utah’s dirty air.” It is that simple and it quite simply works. In fact, it works far better than I could have ever imagined. In four short years, our victories, which are shared with many other local groups, are as numerous as the trophies lining the room of a high school field and track star. They include:
- We toppled plans for two local coal-fired power plants.
- We forced a proposal for a highly polluting petroleum-coke energy plant just outside of Salt Lake City to be shelved.
- We successfully worked with Representative Christine Johnson to draft and pass House Bill 106, which allocated $100,000 to retrofit the diesel-spewing school bus fleet in Utah. This bill also allowed Utah to tap into over a million dollars in federal air pollution mitigation money.
- We pressured the Utah Department of Transportation to nix a 6-lane mega-transportation corridor that would have been adjacent to 21 schools, virtually creating a cancer corridor for those students. Instead of this mega-freeway, they built a parkway and are implementing public transportation, including a dedicated train line from the suburbs to downtown Salt Lake City.
- We were instrumental in launching an idle-free initiative in Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.
- We were instrumental in establishing recess guidelines for poor-air-quality days, which are promoted by the Utah Department of Public Health and followed by most Utah schools.
- We proposed and passed an enforceable idle-free law in Park City.
- We have educated thousands of Utah children and adults on the importance of clean air.
- We successfully pressured Utah’s Department of Air Quality to tighten conditions on Rio Tinto’s mining permit.
- We traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for clean air, meeting with state senators, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and White House officials.
And this is only a partial list of our accomplishments…
We are very proud of our successes and the real impact they have had on the air our children breathe. Unfortunately, like all mamas, we still have a long to-do list demanding our attention before we can sit down and relax with that romance novel!
At the top of that list is getting Utah’s number one polluter, Rio Tinto, to turn their visible-from-outer-space open-pit mine into the greenest, cleanest mine in the world. Is that too big of a task for us mamas to take on? We don’t think so.
We are also grizzly bearish about protecting the Clean Air Act, which is currently under assault by America’s big polluters — and that is why Utah Moms for Clean Air is going national and partnering with the MOMS CLEAN AIR FORCE. and Earthjustice’s 50 States United for Clean Air Campaign.
We are, after all, responsible for our children’s lives and health, but I fear as a society we are failing to adequately protect them. We deliberate over car seat models and the right foods to feed our children. We study the latest child development information, investigate schools and choose appropriate after-school activities. We often agonize over our children’s safety, worrying about crime and abuse and accidents. Yet the way we allow businesses to externalize air pollution unto our communities (virtually giving them licenses to kill) and the way we choose to live our fossil-fuel-dependent lives is permanently damaging our kids’ health. We must embrace changes in our own lives as well as insist that our elected officials prioritize citizen health over corporate profits. Finally, we can and must just clean up our messes. America’s children are depending on us to do so.
— Cherise Udell, in a MOMS CLEAN AIR FORCE cross-post. She has a BA in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley and has her nearly finished MS in social ecology from Yale University on hold until she raises her babies and cleans up Utah’s air!