Utah Valley’s first Clean Air Rally on Saturday, Feb. 5, attracted a crowd of citizens concerned with Utah’s poor air quality.
“I just think it’s a super important issue that we should deal with,” said rally attendee Aaron Smith. “Nobody likes to have dirty air, and I think it’s one part of the bigger environmental problem that we have, so if we can help with this, it’s one step closer.”
The rally was held outside Provo’s historic Utah County Courthouse and featured a range of noted speakers whose remarks focused on different ways to improve Utah’s air quality.
“Utah’s inability to solve our air pollution problem — the worst in the nation the last two weeks — is due in large part to our lack of understanding or accepting the truth, the science, the facts,” said the first speaker of the event, Brian Moench, a doctor and Founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
Moench said the scientific truth of bad air quality is being held hostage by some political leaders and ignored by many others.
“Just like there is no safe number of cigarettes that you can smoke, there is no safe amount of air pollution you can breathe,” Moench said.
Moench said that clean air is preventive healthcare, and it’s the best kind and least expensive healthcare there is.
Another speaker, BYU biology professor Zach Aanderud, said Utahns need to invest in renewable energy.
“There really is no such thing as clean fossil fuels,” Aanderud said. “The science is clear, but our future is not.”
Utah Moms for Clean Air Founder Cherise Udell said in an interview Utah’s air quality was really bad when she first moved to Utah ten years ago with a newborn and a 2-year-old.
“I had a feeling I was locking them in a windowless room full of chain-smokers,” Udell said.
Udell said her motherly instinct was spot on, because soon after moving to Utah she read research showing that breathing outside on “red air days” is the equivalent of smoking half a pack of cigarettes. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality measures air pollution levels and meteorological values, and red air days have an air quality index of unhealthy, very unhealthy, or hazardous.
“When I read that, I said, ‘I’ve got to stand up and do something,’” Udell said. “I can no longer just complain about this problem or turn a blind eye to it. I’ve got to act.”
Professional skier Brody Leven attended and spoke at the Clean Air Rally. In an interview, he said he works closely with some of Salt Lake City’s environmental movements, but he feels out of touch with the movements in Utah County.
“When I got the call from Utah Valley Environment Earth Forum, I realized that there’s this whole own movement happening down here, and I wanted to do what I can to help bolster that movement,” Leven said.
In his speech, Leven said he used to defend Utah despite its bad air quality, but after skiing for three straight weeks in Utah this January and seeing firsthand how bad the air was, he changed his mind.
“I’ve decided this is indefensible,” Leven said. “Instead of using my voice to speak up in defense of Utah, I’m going to use my voice to speak up to our legislatures and to the people who are making these decisions that are affecting all of us, and I hope all of you guys can do the same.”
HEAL Utah Policy Director Ashley Soltysiak said in her speech that Utah fails to meet federal health standards because of the dirty air.
“We need action now,” Soltysiak said. “So how can you impact real change?”
Soltysiak suggested contacting legislators about clean air and clean energy, showing up on Capitol Hill to lobby or testify and even sending legislators a Facebook message or a tweet.
“Ultimately, the point here is to reach out and do it often,” Soltysiak said. “That means holding our elected leaders accountable to make sure their votes reflect our values.”
Soltysiak said that there won’t be a quick fix to change Utah’s air quality overnight, but meaningful change is still possible.
“We need vigilance and education to overcome the challenges to clean air and energy, Soltysiak said. “But with all of our voices, it is absolutely possible.”
In his speech, BYU humanities professor George Handley mentioned the Provo City Center Temple just across the street from the rally, where members find inspiration and meaning behind God’s creations. He said it’s everyone’s duty to learn about those creations and protect them.
“I do not believe we have an excuse to ignore scientific learning at any stage of our lives,” Handley said.
Moroni Benally, Co-Founder of the Utah League of Native American Voters, said change happens through rallying, research, marching, legislature contact and moral conviction.
“It is our sacred responsibility to protect and preserve the planet for future generations,” Benally said.
UVU English professor Linda Shelton said she attended the rally because she wanted to find out what more she can do to improve Utah’s air quality.
Shelton said she’s already taking steps, such as avoiding idling her car and teaching her students the danger of bad air quality.
“Air quality is critical right now,” Shelton said. “We can’t wait any longer.”