Utah’s polluted air is visible as a dirty haze draped over the valley, a poisonous fog that seems to go on with no end in sight. The most drastic effects are invisible. Groups in Utah County are leading the charge to make cleaner air a priority.
According to the American Lung Association, the Salt Lake–Provo area has the seventh-worst short term particle pollution in the nation. Airnow.gov has consistently ranked Provo in the top five for dirtiest air throughout the winter months.
Deborah Burney-Sigman is chair of the board of Breathe Utah, an interest group dedicated to raising awareness of the issue. The organization works with state legislature to promote an air quality agenda and leads discussions with K–12 classes to instill clean-air values in the minds of the rising generation.
“It’s a multi-dimensional problem,” Sigman said. “Air pollution is an aspect of every part of our modern society.”
Fossil fuels are emitted into the atmosphere every time someone uses a car engine, furnace or water heater. The bowl shape of Utah County’s mountains traps the polluted air, creating a dirty smog. It’s something that Sigman believes Utah County residents recognize and are trying to change.
“Our air quality is our Achilles heel,” Sigman said.
The BYU Eco-Response club, led by Jared Meek, has also stepped up to help. They work with the mayor’s office and with the BYU student body to enact environmental change. Meek is a junior studying conservation from Fort Worth, Texas. He credits his love of nature and sense of spiritual obligation for his environmental activism.
“We believe God wants us to take care of the earth and to educate others about the problems in our community,” Meek said. “This isn’t a political issue; it’s a moral one.”
Some of the BYU Eco-Response club’s most recent projects have involved working with the Recycling Center to promote recycling on campus and raising money for the Rock Canyon Preservation Alliance to stop the development of Rock Canyon. The club partners with other local environmental groups, hosting forums on campus to educate the student body about environmental issues.
Local governments and private businesses are also focusing on making the environment safer.
Provo City is imposing regulations on idling during the winter since officials believe it causes large amounts of air pollution. Local schools have established a flag system to indicate the day-to-day severity of air pollution. Grants from the Utah Clean Air Partnership are empowering small businesses like auto shops and coffee companies to use greener technology. The Utah Transit Authority has also opened a new compressed natural gas fueling facility to supply its growing fleet of compressed natural gas buses.
Utah Transit Authority has dramatic plans to expand, with buses 85 percent cleaner than pre-2007 diesel buses. While the fleet successfully houses 47 compressed natural gas buses, the new facility will have the capability to service up to 250. Each bus will reduce 17 tons of greenhouse gas yearly, representing a massive cumulative reduction.
While regulations and ordinances play large roles in capping air pollution, leaders of both Breathe Utah and the Eco-Response club believe that change will need to come from the citizens of Utah County.
Although Sigman was initially only “silently disturbed” by the pollution around the area, her own research allowed her to find her voice and form a group dedicated to better air quality.
“That’s one of the strengths of the people here,” Sigman said. “When we see the problem, we lead the charge.”