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Some days, the Northern Utah air is so thick with haze that it’s impossible to see the mountains. From the benches, the downtown skyline is obscured in layers of smog. It’s unhealthy. It’s unsightly. And it’s a huge liability for economic development efforts in the state.
Geography, in Northern Utah, is a huge blessing and something of a curse.
“Our natural beauty in Utah—which provides for that sought-after healthy lifestyle—is an economic advantage for us, and one that other metropolitan areas can’t match,” says Marty Carpenter, spokesperson for the Salt Lake Chamber.
But the state’s high-elevation mountain ranges and low-lying valleys create an inescapable problem: when the weather conditions are right, valley air becomes trapped while pollutants build up to higher and higher concentrations.
On particularly bad winter days, the air quality in the Wasatch region is the worst in the country, according to tracking by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). On the most severe air quality days, pollution levels spike to more than double the EPA recommendations.
It doesn’t help that there are five oil refineries along the northern Salt Lake Valley and Kennecott Utah Copper on the southwestern edge—not to mention the hundreds of thousands of cars on the road each day.
The Utah Division of Air Quality tracks 100 companies and organizations as the largest pollution emitters, says Bryce Bird, director of the division. These sources include the refineries, power plants, sand and gravel operations, and even the state’s many universities, due to the number and size of buildings on the campuses.
And then there are “area sources,” the general impacts of having nearly 2 million people living along the Wasatch Front and the energy consumed powering their homes and offices.
In the summertime, the major pollution concern is ground-level ozone. In the winter, the biggest problem is fine particulate matter. The EPA tracks two sizes of particulates: PM10, which is about one-seventh the diameter of a human hair, and PM2.5, which is one-thirtieth the diameter of hair.
On an average winter day, says Bird, motor vehicles are responsible for more than 50 percent of the PM2.5 in the air, while industrial emitters and area sources make up the rest.
Polluting the Economy
For the Salt Lake Chamber, poor air quality presents as much an economic development threat as a health threat.
“It’s not the tree-hugger thing that you might be picturing,” says Carpenter. “It’s important to our economic development that we maintain and improve our air quality. It’s important for job creation, for business growth, and it impacts every business in the state.”
One of the biggest threats is the possibility of additional federal regulation.
Northern Utah’s seasonal pollution spikes have already drawn the attention of the EPA. A broad swath of the region has been designated as a “non-attainment” area for PM2.5, including all of Davis and Salt Lake counties, and portions of Tooele, Box Elder, Weber and Cache counties. Salt Lake and Utah counties are non-attainment areas for PM10 pollution.
While the state is working to formulate a plan to deal with its air quality, “The EPA has two hammers that are waiting to fall,” says Bird. One is automatic sanctions that would reduce or eliminate federal highway funding for capacity-expanding projects. The other is an EPA-imposed plan to bring the area into compliance—in other words, additional regulatory oversight and burdens.
Both of these possibilities concern the Salt Lake Chamber.
“Highway funding has been such a vital component to our economic development effort over the last seven or eight years,” notes Carpenter. Projects like the Mountain View Corridor and the extension of the Legacy Highway are vital for the surrounding communities. Plus, these projects provide much-needed construction jobs.
Utah’s air quality presents another economic development concern—a reduced ability to recruit businesses to Utah. “The EDCUtah really gets nervous about bringing people to Utah in January and February for fear there will be poor air quality issues,” says Carpenter. “If they see a valley filled with haze and pollution, it’s not as attractive to them.”
Other economic costs of poor air quality include reduced worker productivity and increased healthcare costs as a result of illnesses caused and exacerbated by the pollution.