Smog Lake City

Salt Lake City chokes on its own smoggy air

POWDER originally published this story in the December (43.3) issue of the magazine. Marquee Photo: Lee Cohen

Cobalt blue skies surround the upper reaches of Little Cottonwood Canyon. It has been a week since the last storm rolled through. Powder stashes are replaced by laps of High Rustler buff. But the lull in snowfall is the least of concerns for skiers who live in Salt Lake City. Down canyon, a thick layer of brownish amber coats the valley. A veil of smog and pollution so thick you can’t decipher the landscape. The realization that we have a serious problem is further demonstrated while passing a Snowbird billboard headlining: “Inversion Diversion.”

The winter inversions have gotten so bad that Utah’s air is at times worse than that of Beijing, China, which has five times as many people as the Wasatch Front.

Inversions, also known as cold air pooling, are a result of high-pressure weather patterns trapping colder, denser air in the valley bottom, effectively placing a cap over Salt Lake City. Whereas skiers enjoy warm, clear skies in the mountains, down below the pollution has nowhere to go but in the lungs of its denizens. The smog events are primarily caused by particulate matter (PM)—a complex mixture of tiny particles of solid or semi-solid nature suspended in the atmosphere. Particulate matter—specifically PM2.5—can cause the most severe damage. Due to their small size, when inhaled they can pass through the nose and throat to the lungs and the cardiovascular system. Scientists have linked exposure to high levels of PM2.5—the federal standard for which is 35.5 micrograms per cubic meter of air—to cardiovascular and lung diseases including cancer and asthma.

The winter inversions have gotten so bad that Utah’s air is at times worse than that of Beijing, China, which has five times as many people as the Wasatch Front. These episodes of bad air cast a black eye on Salt Lake City, a health-conscious community on the doorstep of world-class recreation. Nate Rafferty, president of the PR group Ski Utah, says smog events can be the first and last thing people see when they travel to and from Salt Lake City. He says inversions are “bad for tourism and quality of life.” That’s putting it mildly. Doctors warn children and pregnant women not to venture outdoors, or to wear masks. Some residents have left town altogether, not interested in risking the long-term health consequences of living in Salt Lake.

This fall, Visit Salt Lake, a nonprofit responsible for the promotion of Salt Lake as a travel destination, launched “Ski City USA”—a campaign aimed at highlighting the unique features of the city and ski lifestyle. However, as Rafferty says, “If we don’t get a handle on our air situation, who wants to stay downtown?” The local ski resorts have helped do their part by subsidizing the Utah Transit Authority to provide free bus fare for season-pass holders. But that alone won’t solve the problem. Utah needs legislative action and community involvement to clean up its dirty air.

Kelly describes the inversion as “a toilet bowl that doesn’t flush.” The unflushed air has not been subtle the last few years, especially when the world’s outdoor industry gathered in one of the best places to work/play in the country.

In 2006, the counties of Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, and Cache exceeded the 24-hour standard limit of PM2.5. Still, in January 2014, a monitoring station in Weber County had three days above the standard, with one day reaching 67.6 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Labeled as “counties of non-attainment,” they were required by the Clean Air Act to develop State Implementation Plans to rectify the issue in accordance with the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. According to Kerry Kelly, associate director for Air Quality (DAQ), Health and Society Program, and Research Associate of Chemical Engineering
at the University of Utah, one-third of Utah’s PM2.5 is direct, meaning it is directly emitted into the atmosphere from combustion sources (i.e. power plants, cars and trucks, and soot from fireplaces/woodstoves). The other two-thirds result from reactions of nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide, and ammonia to form a particulate matter. In other words, bad things you don’t want in your body.

Kelly describes the inversion as “a toilet bowl that doesn’t flush.” The unflushed air has not been subtle the last few years, especially when the world’s outdoor industry gathered in one of the best places to work/play in the country. Like an RV trip through the Powder Highway gone astray by a backed-up toilet, Salt Lake had nowhere to hide during the 2013 and 2014 Winter OR Shows. As people walked around downtown in a dirty mist, health experts warned against doing exactly that. It felt a lot more like “Smog City” than “Ski City.”

While the Wasatch is home to the “Greatest Snow on Earth,” it still resides in a highly conservative state. Just recently, Utah sued the Bureau of Land Management to block preservation of sensitive lands eyed for oil and gas development in Uintah County. The business-first, environment-second notion trickles down into its management of air quality. Though the state passed several initiatives last year to help clean air bills, including new funding to identify the worst culprits, politics continue to get in the way of real progress.

Data from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality shows that 57 percent of inventoried emissions that lead to the formation of secondary PM2.5 are from mobile sources. However, Kelly and Ryan Streams, an analyst at Utah Energy Research Triangle, explain that 250 trucks per day going from the Uinta Basin to Salt Lake Valley—carrying oil and gas to be refined at factories—are included in the mobile source data. Grouped together with the commuter pollution, factories are getting a write-off, as commuters (while still part of the problem) get blamed for the city smog. Furthermore, according to Kelly and the DAQ, since 2008 both point and area sources have increased their level of particulate matter pollution, 3 percent and 6 percent, respectively. The only source to decrease was mobile, dropping 9 percent.

Despite research efforts to identify sources of pollution, the reality is the Utah Air Quality board does not have a role in factory permits. So even with Kelly, the engineer on the governor-appointed board, all of their research can become ambient noise as the state charges ahead in allowing dirty polluters to operate in a valley conducive to stale air. Their program has had great success and residents are becoming increasingly concerned. Surging public and private interests have been demanding clean air though better public transportation, tier 3 gasoline, and restricting factory emissions, though it needs to be year round, not fleeting concerns when air quality is at its worst. It will take a strong consensus among political allies, the various citizen action groups, and leaders in our science community to leverage the obscure state government of Utah. If not, we may start to see visitors in Salt Lake traveling with gas masks along with their ski gear.