Monday, February 18, 2013

Choose Better Air

Lindsey from Cafe Johnsonia took this "Foggy" Sunrise

My neighbors on the Wasatch Front and I live in a geographic conundrum. We're surrounded by gorgeous mountains with tremendous beauty and great recreation. They offer us protection from the ravages of midwestern tornados, and many other natural disasters. The one terrible thing about our mountains is the air gets trapped in the valleys during weather phenomenons known as "inversions." Basically, a high pressure system sits on top of us like a lid on a pot. The air below is colder than the air above. Any emissions from cars, industry, fires, and other pollutants can't escape, we're all trapped under the same lid. Inversions have always been this way. There are accounts from hundreds of years ago from native inhabitants about the phenomenon. My dad recounts the days of coal-burning fires in the Salt Lake Valley, how you couldn't see from one end to the other all winter long. Our geography determines natural inversions, but we alone are responsible for the pollutants that get trapped in the inversion**. The only way for the inversion to lift is when the high pressure system is pushed by another weather force.

Concerned about the level of industrial pollutants in the air during the inversion, Rachael invited me and a few others to meet with Kennecott and Rio Tinto. It was our chance to ask hard questions about their contribution to worsening air quality.

We lived through one of the worst inversions I can remember this past December and January. The temperatures were brutally cold. 1 degree. 5 degrees--and that was the HIGH for the day. Almost two million people, including our fragile, health-compromised friends and our precious children, were living in a toxic air soup. The inversion got so bad that kids weren't allowed to play outside for recess, wood burning stoves and fires banned, and yet the "fog" and "haze" just got worse. I remember driving down the freeway and watching some BMW SUV barrel in the HOV lane just billowing clouds of gray smoke right into the air we breathed. I was so angry at that car's owner for irresponsibly belching smoke into my baby's lungs.

I wondered what the other contributors to the bad air could be, and certainly thought that Kennecott, one of the largest open-pit mines in the world, and smack dab on the west side of Salt Lake County, would have to be responsible for a significant portion. I'd heard reported in our local media that their industrial output, by vehicles, equipment, and the smelter, were responsible for 30% of our toxic air particulates.
And that was the first question I asked,

"I've heard you're responsible for 30% of emissions in the air during the inversions." 
According to the Utah Division of Air Quality, our state government agency, Kennecott is responsible for 5.8% of our annual emissions. Area sources (meaning not industrial output) like burning fuels, buildings, bakeries, your snow blower, etc., are responsible for 57% of the air particulates. Mobile vehicles and traffic (like your car) are 29%. 13% are from point sources (meaning industrial output) and Kennecott is 5.8% from that 13%.

"How do you know what percent you're responsible for?"
Because the EPA and the Division of Air Quality monitor and measure us. Kennecott must track analyze and report under the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory program. The DAQ has independent monitors in several valley locations to track and report on particulate emissions. Industry is held responsible for their emissions, and for staying inside their permitted output or facing fines and legal consequences.

"Do you ever consider reducing your activities on bad air days, or shutting down all together?"
Yes, they do reduce their activities on winter days so that their part is 3.8% of that 13%.

"Do you recognize your responsibility in that part, even if it is 3.8%, is still significant?"
Yes, and they're working to reduce their emissions even further with focusing on efficiency and modern equipment. They have no idling rules for their vehicles (which are equipped with sensors that send data back to supervisors; employees are held responsible for their actions.)

"Do you take into account efficiency and particulate emissions when you get new equipment?"
Yes, because they are legally required to. The EPA and DAQ are constantly making higher standards for their industry and even though they don't know what those standards will be in 5 years, they have to be working on better efficiencies or they will be in violation of the law.

"I've heard that you don't have a reclamation fund to fix what you've left behind, is that true?"
No, they are legally required by the EPA to maintain a reclamation fund and have a plan to recover our lands well into the future.

Overall, I felt like Kennecott tried to answer our questions fairly and respectfully. They are a highly regulated industry (I wouldn't have that any other way; regulations are there for our safety and for the protection of our environment and health. I think we need environmental regulations that constantly increase in stringency; we can demand it of our industries and government.) Are there other questions to ask them? I'm sure you can think of even more to ask than I did.

My bottom line take away is that we are all responsible for our air quality.

I picked a hybrid vehicle to drive, not necessarily to save money on gas (studies show that you pay more for a hybrid vehicle which often negates the gas savings for several years,) but because I felt it was my responsibility to reduce the emissions and pollutants that my actions cause. You can make similar decisions.

We live in an area that has natural inversions, but we're responsible for what we put out there. Travel less, consolidate more. Choose public transportation. Take care of your equipment and vehicles so they don't spew crap into our kids' lungs. Demand that your local companies, buildings, work environments, and neighbors do the same. And yes, ask our industries what they're doing and hold them accountable. We can't eliminate winter inversions, but we could be doing a lot more to reduce the toxicity of the air.

**Let's not kid ourselves: when there aren't inversions all those pollutants don't magically disappear, they're pushed higher and contribute to those greenhouse gases you've heard about causing serious environmental havoc. It's just that during inversions we're faced with the pollutants we create just hanging around us, reminding us of our dependence on fossil fuels and slowly poisoning us in our self-created soup. Breathe on that.


Trish and Greg said...

Thank you for this blog post. My family and I lived in Salt Lake Valley for many years in the 80's and 90's. I know the pollutants under an inversion are bad, but another serious response related to inversions is SAD, for seasonal affective disorder. I remember the gloom that settled in on me in December and didn't lift until March. It was not a good time. I lived in Sugarhouse, but once a week I had an appointment in a home above the Capitol Building. That was my weekly dose of sunshine, driving up into the foothills until I was above the inversion. Those were rough years.

Josh Bingham said...

Thanks - well put. I am sligtly obsessed/ panicked about the inversion. I commute a long way to work, so I know I am part of the problem. I have thought about getting a hybrid/ electric vehicle (when I win the lottery and can afford a new car.) I just worry about driving in bad weather. That's the double edged sword - I drive a lot and because of that I feel like I need a car (all wheel drive gas guzzler) that can handle the snow if I have to get to work during a snow storm. How has your car been on icy days?

Tonia Conger said...

Carina, does it count if I bought a non-hybrid car but drive it less than 100 miles a week? I think I put 6000 miles on my car last year. And now that I have a bigger car I can actually do more carpooling. Am I just trying to make myself feel better now? And is Clementine's propensity to toot a lot during the day worse than my non-hybrid?
Seriously though, thank you for this post

kirsten said...

Thanks for talking about this, we have been fed up with the air for years, and I think the biggest problem is ignorance. And people don't want to talk about it for fear of being labeled a liberal (gasp!) since environmental always equals political, which bugs me.