Utah pollution at pre-Clean Air Act levels

By Isabella Bravo, Staff Writer

The smog trapped in the Salt Lake Valley last week contained nearly twice the unhealthy amount of particles and is similar to the air pollution that occurred before the 1970 Clean Air Act was passed, according to experts.

The Utah Division of Air Quality takes hourly samples of how many particles per meter are in Salt Lake City’s air at a testing site located only three miles from the U, at Hawthorne Elementary at 1675 S. and 700 East.

Neal Olson, an environmental scientist with the division, said that after the inversion caused smog levels to rise for a week, the reading at noon Thursday at Hawthorne Elementary was 67 micrograms of particles per cubic meter of air, which is nearly double the national standard.

Olson said the national standard for air quality is 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air samples for a 24-hour average.

John Veranth, a U research professor in pharmacology and toxicology, said the health impacts of such pollution can be dangerous.

“Exposure as a child to air pollution leads to permanent impairment of lung function and chronic exposure leads to shorter life expectancy,” Veranth said.

Last week’s smog covered the valley in a thick brown haze because of a process known as inversion. Olson explained that air normally cools as it rises. However, during a temperature inversion, abnormally warm air is not able to cool during ascension and thus cannot mix with the upper atmosphere. The air becomes trapped within the lower part of the atmosphere in the Salt Lake Valley.

“The inversion keeps all of the pollutants in the air, when normally they escape higher,” Olson said. The severity of the inversions experienced in the Salt Lake Valley is partially due to the enclosure created by the surrounding mountains, but larger and more open valleys, such as the Tooele Valley, experienced high levels of inverted air and smog last week as well, he said.

Veranth said the lack of visibility created by the smog reminded him of a time in the United States before environmental legislation helped control air quality.

“The levels of air pollution we are seeing now in the Salt Lake Valley are comparable to what was seen in highly polluted industrial cities before the 1970 Clean Air Act was passed,” Veranth said. “I recall that in the 1960s, visibility in Chicago was often less than two miles on weekdays, and that is what I am seeing across campus now.”

Olson said the three main contributors to in-air particles are automobile traffic, wood stoves and some industry emissions. Olson said unfortunately he has found very little correlation with changes in traffic after the notices to reduce driving due to air conditions, such as those released by the Division of Air Quality at the end of last week.

The car traffic to and from the U is a potentially large source of air and water pollution for the Salt Lake Valley. Judy Moran, a hazardous waste environmental specialist for the U’s department of environmental health and safety, said there are various environmental pollutions for which the U is responsible.

“The U produces wastewater, contaminated storm water runoff, air pollution (both from facility operations and from vehicle traffic), hazardous and solid waste,” Moran said.

Alma Allred, director of Commuter Services, said he disagrees that the U is responsible for carbon emissions.

“Carbon emissions (in the area) come from many sources,” he said.

According to Moran and Allred, the U takes numerous steps to prevent water and air contamination and has increased those efforts in recent years.

An example of these preventive measures is the Ed-Pass program through the Utah Transit Authority, which encourages students to use public transportation.

The U’s Storm Water Advisory and Management Team, a part of the Department of Environmental Health and Safety, has identified parking lots along with other impervious surfaces as noteworthy sources of storm water pollution, said Moran.

Due to wastewater and stormwater pollution risk, the Utah Division of Water Quality requires the U to take special measures in parking lots to prevent stormwater contamination.

“When we wash the parking levels in university structures, we are required to capture the water and not allow it to enter the storm water sewers,” Allred said. “So, we do take into account the risks and do what we can to mitigate those risks.”

Moran said wastewater and stormwater pollution have increased on campus, but the Department of Environmental Health and Safety had no data on the pollution levels.

Allred reported that during winter months the car traffic to and from the U decreases in comparison to fall months. At peak times, such as 9 a.m. on weekdays, of the approximately 16,000 parking stalls, the U has 3,000 vacant spaces.

Allred said the U will reduce the number of parking stalls on campus in the coming months as a result of new construction projects, such as the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative complex where the golf course used to be, the Universe Project in the west Rice-Eccles Stadium parking lot and other facility updates.

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Greg Harlow

Last week the smog in the Salt lake Valley became so dense that it limited vision down 8th south.