Residents of Utah and Salt Lake valleys who have been outside during the winter months have likely noticed Utah has an air quality problem.

In Utah County and elsewhere in the state, air quality in winter months can reach “unhealthy” and “hazardous” levels on the Air Quality Index. This poses a threat particularly to young children, older adults and people with respiratory problems. At one point in December, Tooele County had the second worst air quality in the entire country.

According to a 2019 poll from Dan Jones and Associates and the Salt Lake Chamber, 48% of Utahns say immediate action is required to address the impacts of climate change.

With concerns about air quality mounting in Utah and elsewhere in the country, lawmakers and government officials have been forced to come up with solutions to help Utahns breathe easier.

Statewide efforts

The state has introduced a number of initiatives in the past decade to address poor air quality in the state.

In October 2013, Gov. Gary Herbert announced the creation of a “Clean Air Action Team” comprised of politicians, business leaders and researchers to “recommend practical and effective strategies to improve Utah’s air quality.”

In May 2018, Herbert put together an “Energy Action Plan Through 2020” highlighting goals the state can set to address environmental concerns. One of the goals was to increase public awareness of transportation options and to make public transit cleaner.

During a Nov. 4 event at the Utah State Capitol celebrating the state’s 11th Alternative Fuels Awareness month, Utah Transit Authority executive director Carolyn Gonot said UTA has reduced emissions from its bus fleet by more than three quarters since 2008 by switching to fully electric and electric-hybrid buses.

As of November, the public transit company operates 54 electric-hybrid buses, three fully electric buses and 47 natural gas-powered buses, according to Gonot.

The governor released his budget recommendations for 2021 on Jan. 8. One of his recommendations includes $100 million “for specific and scalable projects that will help improve Utah’s air quality.”

With Herbert’s goal of reducing per capita emissions 25% by 2026 in mind, $34 million would go toward public transit and $66 million would be spent on electric vehicle infrastructure, including charging stations for electric cars.

Herbert requested the same amount of spending for air quality initiatives last year, but the legislature only appropriated $28 million. During a keynote address at a Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce event on Jan. 10, the governor said this was still significantly more than the state had ever allotted toward improving air quality.

At the event, Herbert spoke about the importance of investing in Tier 3 fuels, which have lower sulfur content and burn cleaner than other forms of gasoline, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

By investing in ways to make public transit “convenient and accessible,” commuters throughout the state will be more likely to take a train or bus to work than drive their cars, Herbert said. And building electric vehicle infrastructure will make it more likely that those who do drive to work will buy a cleaner-running vehicle.

“That could be a real game-changer,” Herbert said about building more charging stations and other infrastructure.

Air quality roadmap

During the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers asked that a roadmap of ways to address air quality and climate change be put together to give them a better sense of what policies should be put in place.

In January, the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah fulfilled that request by releasing a roadmap with seven recommendations for improving air quality in the state.

According to Director Natalie Gochnour, who served as a political appointee for the Environmental Protection Agency during the presidency of George W. Bush, the roadmap was put together with input from a 37-person advisory committee consisting of university researchers, government agency officials, health care workers and nonprofit officials.

Citing a “rapidly growing awareness for urgent action” when it comes to combating environmental issues, Gochnour wrote in a letter to state legislators that the roadmap “lays the groundwork to achieve positive solutions on air quality and a changing climate.”

The first recommendation is that emissions-reduction goals be adopted by resolution or statute in 2020. Specifically, the report recommends legislators mandate that Utah “reduce CO2 emissions statewide 25% below 2005 levels by 2025, 50% by 2030, and 80% by 2050” and “reduce criteria pollutant air emissions below 2017 levels by 50% by 2050.”

The report also recommends legislators “lead by example” by passing policy to convert all state vehicle fleets to zero and low-emission vehicles, implementing energy-efficiency goals for government buildings, developing “appropriate administrative rules to limit oil and gas leaks,” funding reforestation efforts and investing in statewide energy planning.

Further research into environmental concerns could be done by establishing and funding “a premier state-level air quality/changing climate research solutions laboratory,” the report said. Part of this would involve setting aside funding “for an initial assessment and feasibility study” to guide further funding and research. This laboratory would report to the legislature once a year.

Lawmakers should diligently plan for population growth that the state expects to see in the coming decades, the report said. Things they should pay attention to when considering growth include public transportation options, building multifamily housing and job centers near transit, preserving open space and encouraging “local governments to incorporate emissions-reduction strategies in community and economic development efforts and projects.”

The fifth recommendation is for lawmakers to help “make Utah the ‘market-based’ electric vehicle (EV) state” by expanding charging stations “to cover all communities, state highways, and scenic byways as quickly as possible” and involving auto dealers in strategies to increase the supply of electric and hybrid vehicles.

The state should provide support for rural communities whose economies have been centered around oil, gas and coal for decades, the report said. Lawmakers can do this by prioritizing economic development in Carbon, Duchesne, Emery, Millard, San Juan, Sevier and Uintah counties and investing in housing to revitalize these communities.

The final recommendation is for the legislature to “actively participate in national discussions about how to harness the power of market forces and new technologies to reduce carbon emissions in a way that does not negatively impact Utahns.” One step toward this would be creating a carbon policy committee to explore national approaches to reducing carbon emissions in an economically viable way, as well as through working with Utah’s Congressional delegation on environmental issues. 

Air quality in the Provo area

In the 1800s, Provo's air was polluted by the numerous coal fires in resident's homes during the winter. Black smoke puffed from chimneys and filled the air. In the mid-nineteen hundreds Geneva Steel added PM 10 particulates to the air causing bad air quality and ugly winter inversions. Now vehicles have taken over with PM 2.5 particulates polluting the air.

Provo, its dynamic bowl shaped valley and its major population growth gave up 10 days to bad air quality last year. Those 10 days, or a least the worst of those days, put Provo in the air quality spotlight nationally with accusations of having the worst air in the U.S.

"Provo having the worst air in the country is one of those myths that just won't die," said Andrea Jensen, Utah County Health Department's Asthma Program coordinator and Certified Asthma Educator.

Jensen should know. Of the four people in her household in Orem, three of them have asthma. If they have a yellow day, they are inside by their inhalers and air purifiers.

She said that PM 2.5 particles can come from more than just car exhaust or gas-powered lawn mowers. One of her children was taken to Utah Valley Hospital's Intensive Care Unit from inhaling particulates floating in the air from a forest fire.

"They nearly died," Jensen said. "We saw a fire and we panicked. I grabbed the kids and left for St. George. I have PTSD from fires."

Jensen said the PM 2.5 particulates are microscopic but have rough edges that can scrape the airways and cause severe damage.

That is why the DEQ annual report for 2019 showing that after years of non-compliance, the Provo area and all of the Wasatch Front is in compliance with federal PM 2.5 standards for pollution was a cause for celebration in the Jensen family.

Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi couldn't be happier about the news and believes the implementation of the city's air quality tool kit, riding public transportation, walking and biking more shows residents care about the air they breathe and the environment in which they live.

"We've been a leader in the valley and state," Kaufusi said. "Per person, we're one of the cleanest cities in the nation on CO2 emissions from driving."

Kaufusi said she was giving a presentation in Salt Lake City and a person stepped up to her and offered to fund 20 electric car charging stations around the city with no taxpayer expense.

One charging station costs between $1,200 and $2,000.

The Provo area, including Orem, with the introduction of the Utah Transit Authority's UVX bus route, is seeing fewer car trips with more than 14,000 boardings per day.

Utah Valley University attributes UVX for freeing up 600 parking spaces on campus. Brigham Young University is reporting about the same.

The new Zagster Scooters that are used between Provo and Orem have replaced about 28,503 car trips and 15,107 miles of driving, preventing 3,104 tons of CO2 emissions, according to Kaufusi.

Isaac Paxman, Provo's deputy mayor gave a nod to Provo being a Tree City USA. Orem and Springville are also Tree Cities.

"We've been a certified Tree City for 35 years," Paxman said. "We have 30,000 trees managed by Provo (does not include private properties)."

Kaufusi is also proud to say that Provo residents walk and bike more than any other city in the state -- 15% walking, 3% biking, according to the 2012 U.S. Census information.

Kaufusi also reports that Provo Power has a goal of 50% renewable energy by 2030. With the help of energy partner Utah Municipal Power Agency (UMPA), a 560-acre, 80-megawatt solar farm is being built in Mona, San Pete County.

Provo resident Ned Hill is chairman of the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce Air Quality Task Force. Residents from Provo, Orem, Lehi, American Fork, Spanish Fork, Nephi, Eagle Mountain, Vineyard and BYU students complete the task force.

"We meet every month," Hill said. "The job of the task force is to get information out and to educate."

One of the greatest changes Hill said he has seen in residents is just accepting the fact there is climate change happening. That acceptance has happened quickly.

"Two years ago I was in a meeting where the keynote speaker said climate change was a hoax," Hill said. "The next year I heard a climate change specialist from Utah State University. Things changed. Now the Board of Provo Power (on which Hill sits) realizes climate change is real. The tide is shifting."

Gov. Herbert asking for more hybrid vehicles in his 2020-2021 budget and charging stations to be on the road is a positive. But for some, a hybrid car may be out of their financial reach. Purchasing Tier 3 gasoline will compensate for the time being. It keeps a car's catalytic converter clean.

"50% of our pollution is from vehicles," Hill said.

Sue Grassley, of Springville, said it was a choice when her husband Tom purchased his Tesla electric hybrid car. Their son Troy purchased a Ford Fusion energy car.

While they believe they are contributing to better air, Troy is more skeptical on the amount of help it's doing.

"I doesn't help as much as using public transportation," Troy Grassley said. "Electric cars are expensive and their tires are still on the road (polluting). Tesla is still a car after all."

Grassley said the state can't keep making Interstate 15 wider for all the cars. Something else will have to be done.

Kaufusi suggests residents drive less and defer to active transportation like biking or walking, carpooling and be idle free. She also suggests residents share information on what they know with others concerning better air quality.

Provo offers suggestions on its clean air tool kit online at https://provocleanair.org.

Orem is also reaping the benefits of the UVX line and is anticipating the next line will dissect the city as it comes from 500 West in Provo and makes its way through Orem, Lindon, Pleasant Grove and American Fork to Lehi.

Vineyard is building walkable, bike-able and tree-lined streets in its modern downtown. Charging stations and a FrontRunner station will be available and buildings are anticipated to be state of the art LEED compliant.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!