Picture of Utah
Picture of Utah
Picture of Utah
Picture of Utah
Picture of Utah
Picture of Utah
Picture of Utah
Picture of Utah

A History of the Inversion: A Foe That Grows Stronger


Air pollution along the Wasatch Front has been a problem in Utah as far back as the 1870s. At that time, many factors were to blame as the smoke from ore smelting facilities, trains, and coal mining activities were all major factors in creating inversions during the pre-automobile era.

By the turn of the century, the Salt Lake Valley had thirty-two different smelters in operation, and the Woodhill Brothers’ smelter, also known as the Murray smoke stacks, was the largest in the valley during its operation from 1869 until 1949. At one point, the Murray smoke stacks was the biggest lead smelter in the world, processing anywhere from hundreds to thousands of tons of ore per day.

Even though the smelters were a boon for the local economy and created thousands of jobs, area farmers complained that the pollution was causing massive crop failures. In 1906, more than 400 farmers filed suit against the American Smelting and Refining Company (AS&R), the owner of the Murray smoke stacks, and four other companies. In November of that year, U.S. Federal District Judge John A. Marshall ruled in favor of the farmers. According to an article published in the San Francisco Call on November 6 of that year, Judge Marshall’s ruling enjoined the smelting companies from “roasting or smelting sulphide ore carrying more than 10 percent sulphur in their plants as at present located.” As a result, many of the smelters closed or relocated. AS&R eventually increased the height of the Murray smoke stack in an attempt to reduce further air pollution. By 1918, the stacks had reached 300 feet and 455 feet.

Still, pollution continued to worsen in the valley, with the burning of coal becoming a major issue by the 1920’s as Salt Lake’s population continued to explode. Partnering with Salt Lake City and the University of Utah, the U.S. Bureau of Mines conducted the first air pollution survey of Salt Lake City and, in 1921, Salt Lake City adopted an ordinance to help improve air quality based on ideas outlined in the Bureau of Mines’ report. As a result, commercial business pollution rates experienced a precipitous drop. City officials continued to push for smoke abatement in the years that followed.

In 1967, Utah’s first air pollution law was passed. The Air Conservation Act, authored by Senators Carl Clark (Republican – Midvale), Ezra Clark (Republican – Bountiful), and Richard Call (Republican – Provo), established an air conservation council. It was comprised of nine members, including a director, a practicing physician and surgeon, a professional engineer, and representatives from municipal government, agriculture, the mining industry, manufacturing, the fuel industry, as well as a member of the public with experience in air pollution issues.

The Air Conservation Council was given several duties and powers. They were charged with promoting, adopting, amending, and repealing rules and regulations regarding the control, abatement, and prevention of air pollution. They also worked to establish air quality standards by requiring businesses that created air pollution to file reports with information regarding the rate, period of emission, and composition of the dirty air they produced, along with containment plans. The council also held hearings about air pollution and settled  civil action initiated to compel compliance with the Air Conservation Act.

The work of the Council and the Air Conservation Act were ultimately unsuccessful and, despite the years of legislation passed and increased efforts by advocacy groups, Utah’s air quality has deteriorated. The number of “red” days, when wood burning is prohibited, is much higher than in previous years. There were 14 voluntary and 35 mandatory days in Salt Lake County from 2012-2013. From 2002-2003, there were 4 and 2 days respectively. In 2013-2014, so far there have been 17 and 18 respectively. There also seems to be a rise in “yellow” (voluntary) and “red” (mandatory) no-driving days in Utah. When the ozone levels in Utah are too high, the Utah Division of Air Quality issues these warnings. In 2012, there were 34 yellow days and 9 red days. 2011 saw 19 yellow and 10 red. In 2001, as far back as records go on the Utah DAQ’s website, there were 16 “no-drive” days. As of this writing, the Utah Division of Air Quality has placed Salt Lake County on an “orange,” or unhealthy air quality designation as the present inversion continues with no end in sight.

In recent years, Utah’s inversions have become famous, making headlines across the country. A report about Salt Lake City’s worsening air quality aired on the January 25, 2013 edition of NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. “What we are exposed to now is comparable to forcing all members of the community to become active smokers”, said Dr. Cris Cowley, former President of the Utah Medical Association, in a clip shown during the segment.

The consequences of continued exposure to bad air during inversions can be quite severe. Studies have shown links between air pollution and premature death from heart or lung disease, cardiac arrhythmia, heart attacks, asthma attacks, bronchitis, pneumonia, and lung cancer. Senior citizens, children, and people who already suffer from these ailments are usually affected the most.

Several public advocacy groups exist that are dedicated to solving Utah’s air quality problem. The Utah Clean Air Partnership is, according to their website, a nonprofit group created to make it easier for individuals, businesses and communities to make small changes to improve Utah’s air. The partnership states that “every small change adds to a collective bigger step toward better health, a better economy and better overall quality of life for all of us.” They recently awarded more than $350,000 in grants to 13 organizations, including the National Energy Foundation, KUED, Provo City Council, Salt Lake Chamber, University of Utah, Utah Transit Authority, Salt Lake County, Breathe Utah, Utah Clean Energy, Utah Clean Cities Coalition, and GREENbike.

According to their website, Breathe Utah focuses on “education outreach, multi-stakeholder collaboration, and policy change.” They talk to legislators and other office holders about air quality, sit on boards and participating in negotiations, and educate the public about the actions the community needs to take to address Utah’s air pollution issues. The organization plans to use their portion of the Clean Air Partnership grant, totaling $25,000, to replace five wood burning fireplaces with natural gas stoves in homes in Salt Lake County.

The Utah Clean Cities Coalition, formerly known as Salt Lake Clean Cities, is a nonprofit group whose mission, according to their website, is to “advance the energy, economic, and environmental security of the United States by supporting local decisions to adopt practices that reduce the use of petroleum in the transportation sector.” They were the 16th coalition to join the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities Program in 1994, with a goal to reduce the use of oil in our modern economy.

GREENbike is a bike share partnership between Salt Lake City, the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, and the Downtown Alliance. A bike share program consists of a several public bike share stations where anyone can checkout a bike for 30 minutes. GREENbike has 12 stations in downtown and 65 bicycles. In 2013, there were more than 6,100 riders who made 26,000 trips with the program. According to the Downtown Alliance, they are responsible for “reducing 52,000 automobile miles that would have otherwise been driven.”

Several pieces of legislation relating to air quality have been proposed for the 2014 General Session, including the Electric Vehicle Battery Charging Amendments, Sustainability Amendments, Joint Resolution Endorsing Tier III Standards for Air Quality, and Clean Air Programs all from Representative Patrice Arent (Democrat – Millcreek), Air Contaminant Definition Change from Representative Jerry Anderson (Republican – Price), Income Tax Credit for Purchase of Transit Pass from Representative Marie Poulson (Democrat – Cottonwood Heights), Air Conservation Act Reauthorization from Senator Scott Jenkins (Republican – Plain City), and Air Quality Amendments from Senator Todd Weiler (Republican – Woods Cross).

The fate of such legislation is as unclear as the air blanketing the Wasatch Front. But one thing is certain, without drastic and sustained action from the legislature and municipal governments, the deadly and soupy air is here to stay.

Copyright © 2015 Utah Political Capitol

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