KUED Explores Utah's Air Quality

Airdate: 
Wednesday, February 5, 2014 - 7:00pm
On a January morning a year ago, 2 million residents in Utah’s northern valleys found themselves in the national spotlight.  Visibility was poor, with temperatures hovering in the teens. Below their feet stretched a layer of snow, obstinate and frozen, not the least bit threatened by the feeble sunlight that managed to filter its way to the ground.  Stretching up to a few hundred feet above that snow was the nation’s worst air.

By nightfall, national news had picked up the story, and the entire country learned that our relatively small city had managed to foul its air more than metropolitan areas five times its population. 
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, over 158 million Americans are currently experiencing unhealthy levels of air pollution.  That’s nearly half the country.   In Utah, fully one third of the population suffers from winter asthma or cardiovascular disease, two chronic illnesses made worse by pollution.  The morning of January 25, 2013, Utah’s air was four times more toxic than what is considered safe for healthy people.

It was a low point in Utah’s fight for clean air.

Bad air is evident far beyond the Wasatch Front, however, with Logan and Duchesne capturing national attention for their poor air quality.  Doctors have advocated for emergency steps to control the situation.  Utahns know what it looks like, but do we really know the science of an air so thick it obscures visibility?  Who is at risk? What is the risk? What are the primary contributors? What are the costs and consequences? 

KUED answers those questions in a new half-hour episode of UtahNOW, The Air We Breathe, produced by Issac Goeckeritz, airs Wednesday, February 5 at 7:00 p.m. with repeats Friday, February 7 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, February 9 at 4:00 p.m.  Narrated by retired broadcast meteorologist Mark Eubank, it is a primer on what air pollution is and what it does to the human body.  Several pollutants in the air we breathe can lead to symptoms ranging from mild respiratory irritation in healthy people to serious health effects like cardiovascular damage in those already at risk.

Enter Utah’s unique geography.  What do you get when you dump lots of snow along the floor of a deep valley, slash temperatures, and then replace the low pressure storm clouds with a high pressure atmosphere, free from clouds?  With nowhere to go, the cold air, kept cold by the snow on the ground, just sits there.  It can’t rise because cold air doesn’t rise, it sinks.  Just above it, kissed by a bright sun, the air rapidly heats up, creating a warm blanket that pins the cold air below it to the valley floor. This is an inversion.  As long as there is  cold air and snow on the ground, and lots of sunlight above, the inversion remains locked in place.

Now consider this. The people in Utah's populous northern calley's produce 360 tons emissions every day. In a six-day inversion, that can add up to over 2,000 tons, or 4 millions pounds of pollutants that have nowhere to go. Trapped in the cold valley air, they simply hang around, tickening with each passing day. 

It's a bleak scenario that thankfully doesn't happen very often in Utah, but when it does, it can turn what is usually good, clean air, into a real threat. For this reason, winters that serve up more inversions than usual stir up the air-quality debate. 

Historically, Utah's air quality initatives have been successful. For the most part, when the Environmental Protection Agency releases newere and stricter emissions rules, Utah complies, and the air becomes significantly cleaner as a result. 

But, Utah still faces some tough challenges. In Utah, there are over 10,000 individual sources of pollution. According to the Department of Environmental Quality's 2008 Emission Inventory, some 57 percent of the pollution along the Wasatch Front in the winter months comes from mobile sources, 11 percent from large industry, and the rest from other sources. 

One of the most frequently voiced complaints about air quality goes like this: "Somebody should do something about this air!" Who are the "somebodys" most likely to make a difference? What are the "somethings that can/should/must be done? 
 
Immediately following The Air We Breathe on February 5 at 7:25 p.m.and February 9 at 4:25 p.m., Clearing the Air explores the range of options for Utah, the roadblocks and resistance, and the role that each of us must accept in turning the state in a new direction for air quality. The half-hour follow-up program is hosted by KUED's Ken Verdoia.

Panelists include Robert Grow, president and CEO of Envision Utah; Brian Moench, director of Utah Physicans for a Healthy Environment; and Brian Mafly, who has been covering the issue for The Salt Lake Tribune.