What are westerners doing to improve air quality?

When Richard Holman moved into his Rose Park home in 2016, he found a community that fit right in.

Neighbors approached his family. He even made the west side coalition to highlight the voices of minorities on the west side of Salt Lake City.

However, six months later, his health began to deteriorate.

“I couldn’t breathe,” Holman said. “I would wake up every day and cough for a full 20 to 30 minutes until I could have an airway.”

The coughing fits didn’t stop until she moved to Sandy for better air to breathe. It wasn’t an easy choice, she said, but changing locations improved her health. Although Holman is no longer from the West Side, he remains instrumental in environmental efforts in the area.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Richard Holman, founder of the Westside Coalition, in 2019. He moved to Sandy to get away from the Westside air and improve his health.

With the help of partners, the Westside Coalition petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct an environmental justice assessment of the Westside. Finalizing the application details took a couple of years, but that analysis is now underway.

Other efforts, including more air quality monitoring sites, target the West Side because it is home to a disproportionate number of polluting industries. The area is still plagued by some of the worst air in the nation, and this year’s investing season is just getting started.

investment started

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A 2017 Ogden filter sample is on the left, compared to a clean sample on the right, at the Rose Park monitoring station, Wednesday, December 14, 2022.

Snow showers have blanketed the Salt Lake Valley for most of this week, cleaning particles from the air. Wednesday was a day of good air quality in Rose Park, according to air quality monitors at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education.

But conditions are expected to change this weekend.

Skies are forecast to become cloudier as an inversion settles over the Salt Lake Valley, with fine particles reaching higher numbers and requiring Utah Division of Air Quality Mandatory Action.

Northern Utahns are asked to reduce driving and avoid open burning. On Wednesday, PM 2.5 levels were 2 micrograms. Those numbers are expected to jump to between 12.5 and 35.4 micrograms on Friday.

“Our big particulate window is December, January, February and the first part of March,” said Bo Call, the division’s air monitoring manager. “During those investment periods, where we can get higher numbers than the rest of the year, we’re generally doing very well with a couple of notable exceptions: windstorms, wildfires, and fireworks,” which raise worries during the summers and autumns while the severe drought persists.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bo Call, air quality section manager for the Division of Air Quality, speaks about the importance of air quality monitoring in Rose Park on Wednesday, December 14, 2022.

The good news is that the air is getting cleaner overall, Call said, compared to decades past.

“The standards are getting stricter and people are getting a lot more aware of things,” Call said. “I still talk to a lot of people thinking the air is getting worse, but it’s actually getting cleaner, the cars are getting cleaner. Everything we do is cleaner.”

Utah’s rapid growth, however, is a concern because it is expected to bring more pollution. But, in the coming decades, the transition to electric vehicles could alleviate the problem, he said, because half of the pollution is emitted by cars.

That might not be enough.

“We’re still in a non-compliance zone (substandard air quality conditions),” Holman said, warning that the potential expansion of Interstate 15 could bring more bad air. “We don’t have electric semis, and we don’t have electric trains. We’re still burning diesel, through those trains and trucks, and we’re increasing the capacity of a highway to accommodate those trucks and those trains to serve a inner harbor and a transportation hub at the international airport.”

Follow up to find solutions

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bo Call, air quality section manager for the Division of Air Quality demonstrates how data is collected inside the Rose Park monitoring station on Wednesday, December 14, 2022.

The Utah Division of Air Quality installs monitors in strategic areas, depending on density and where models show there could be high concentrations of pollutants.

The west side, for example, includes major highways, railways, refineries, and a sprawling airport.

The monitoring station at Liberty Wells’ Hawthorne Elementary School was the division’s highest contamination site. But that has been changing.

“This [Rose Park] it’s been slowly closing in,” Call said. “Now it’s up to Hawthorne and Rose Park to go head to head and back and forth to see which has the higher values.”

New monitoring sites are scheduled for Brigham City, Summit County, Wasatch County and Moab, Call said. Most air quality monitors in Salt Lake County they are on the west sideand will increase in the near future.

The West Side caught the eye of the Biden administration, which approved a grant to install 40 particle sensors in Magna, West Valley City and some northwest Salt Lake City neighborhoods in November.

The effort is part of EPA’s focus on communities that are underserved, historically underserved and overburdened by pollution.

While intensified monitoring may lead to solutions, Holman worries about the future of the West Side, especially given the potential expansion of I-15 and the arrival of Utah’s Inner Harbor.

“How much more traffic will that bring to the area?” Holman asked. “And how can we achieve environmental quality when we continually add pollutants to the air basin?”

alixel cabrera is a Report for America Corps member and writes about the state of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Her donation to match our RFA grant helps her keep writing stories like this; consider making a tax-deductible donation of any amount today by clicking here.

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