Herald Poll

Poll: Breathing elevated?

2013-02-08T00:04:00Z 2013-02-13T07:46:21Z Poll: Breathing elevated? Daily Herald
February 08, 2013 12:04 am

Utah has been setting all kinds of records since January, and not the good kind.

Last week Utah won top prize for worst air in the nation, which is quite a feat. We bested Atlanta, Detroit, Pittsburg, San Bernardino and the infamous Los Angeles area. If you woke up with a scratchy throat and the beginnings of a cough, you might now know why.

Lately, Provo has been consistently ranked No. 1 worst to somewhere in the Top 5 worst. It's largely a consequence of our geologic bowl, where mountains trap the air and winter inversions keep the pollution near the ground.

Are many people upset about this? Hard to say. For those who lived through the Geneva Steel days, the air lately may not seem so bad. It's clean compared to the days when the smokestacks belched orange. Many seem to just take it in stride -- which is not unreasonable since ordinary people really can't do much about it.

While the Utah Legislature has debated this session whether global warming or climate change exist, Utahns have been inhaling gunk -- like working in an office full of smokers, only the office is measured not in square feet but in square miles.

It's especially hard on senior citizens and pregnant women; both groups have been advised by doctors to avoid going outside. It sure takes the fun out of winter.

Does the fact that our atmosphere has been categorized as unhealthy lead to any behavioral changes? Are we driving less? Carpooling? Using that new nifty FrontRunner? Strategically planning our errands? We're guessing that for the majority of people in Utah Valley, the answer is no. Life must go on, and that tends to mean in the usual way.

Whatever happened to "Life Elevated," Utah's slogan? If only we could get really elevated -- say to at least 6,000 feet above sea level (Provo is roughly 4,500) -- we could get a breath of fresh air, above the blanket of smog. Driving there would only make the smog worse below.

For a state whose prized attributes are outdoor recreation, spectacular natural vistas and healthy living, we seem to be doing a poor job of taking care of our home.

But what are we to do?

It's not a temporary problem. It's worse in winter, but polluted atmospheric soup is a year-round phenomenon. Everybody knows this. Nobody likes it, least of all the Environmental Protection Agency, which has put Utah on notice that something must be done. Exactly what, and at what cost, is a slipperier proposition.

There has been a good deal of investment by Utah industry to reduce emissions -- billions since the Clean Air Act was passed into law some 40 years ago. There have been efforts to reduce automobile idling. We've built more mass transit.

One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the location and height of our mountains. That will take some doing, and even the EPA has no plan.

Meanwhile, too many people are pointing the finger of blame. There's a grassroots campaign to pressure Gov. Gary Herbert, whose fault pollution is not. The campaign is called "Gov. Herbert, We Cannot Breathe." Another group of activists is pushing a clean air pledge on state lawmakers.

Leadership is needed on this complex issue, to be sure, but leadership to what goal exactly? That really isn't clear. The mountains that trap pollution are not going away, which means that to move Utah air quality to even the middle of the list could take draconian and expensive action.

Will Utahns be willing to pay the freight of clean air? Will they be willing to change their polluting behaviors in a significant way? Don't hold your breath (or do -- you may have no choice as the problem worsens through population growth).

Utahns should try to make the best of things by voluntarily making changes. That's always a better option than a law. We'll never have the air of Hawaii, but what is the one best way to make a difference here?

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