Utah’s Fight for Clean Air

When most American’s think about Utah, they may envision pristine landscapes and crystal clear air. They would be surprised to learn that the state capital, Salt Lake City, has garnered the number seven spot on the The American Lung Association State of the Air 2012.

Ordinary citizens are fighting back, demanding that the polluters be reined in. At the forefront of the pushback are parents and doctors.

Cecilee Price-Huish, President of the Davis County Community Coalition, is the mother of five children ages six to sixteen. I caught up with her in-between her meeting her youngest at his kindergarten class and accompanying him on a field trip. Price-Huish was troubled when she found out that the HollyFrontier refinery near her home wanted to build their own power plant within their existing industrial footprint. Part of the plan was the use of Petcoke, which she characterized as a “thick black sludge laden with heavy metals and a dirtier power source than coal.” Price-Huish informed me that there are presently five refineries in the greater Salt Lake City area within five miles off the Interstate 15 — where all the major population centers are located.

According to Price-Huish, the presence of refineries in the vicinity dates back to 1910. She said, “This long history creates a kind of an ever present fixture on the landscape — both physically and psychologically.” In an area where “everyone knows someone who has respiratory distress or childhood asthma,” Price-Huish and a neighbor determined, “We have to get involved.” Discussing Utah’s dubious distinction of having the “worst air in the nation during January and February when there is a thick fog,” Price-Huish said, “We have red alert days where kids and the elderly are advised to stay inside.”

Price-Huish reached out to Utah Moms For Clean Air and the Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment for support. Dr. Brian Moench, an anesthesiologist, is the President and founder of the latter group. By telephone, he brought me up to speed on the challenges Utah has been facing.

Moench’s awareness began in the winter of 2007. He explained, “We had a stretch of the worst pollution I had ever experienced, so my colleagues and I started investigating what the public health consequences were. We called then Gov. John Huntsman and made a formal presentation to him. He was alarmed and made it a priority.” Moench added, “His successor is much more conservative. Currently, there is not will at the State government level.” In fact, Moench noted that the state “wants to maximize extraction—which is incompatible with reducing pollution.”

The UPHE website, which is chock full of information, is updated every couple of weeks. There I read about their numerous actions, including the lawsuit against Kennecott Utah Copper. I also learned that three of Utah’s refineries use the toxic chemical hydrofluoric acid (HF), which impacts the human body from the eyes and bones to the respiratory and digestive tracts.

According to Moench, refining pollution is extremely toxic. He discussed how the most heavily populated part of Utah is subjected to the “bowl effect,” which means that the mountains hold in the pollution. “Kids consume more oxygen, they breathe faster and their heat rates are higher, so they inhale more pollution.” Earlier exposure in life is a guarantee that the damage is “greater and with long consequences.” Since Utah has the highest birth rate in the nation, the impact to the population is proportionately greater.

Referencing the incumbent Congressman from District 1, Rep. Rob Bishop, Moench said, “He has no understanding of or appreciation for the connection between environmental protection and public health protection.” Moench qualified Bishop as “part of the ringleaders of the Republican Party in Utah that are trying to wrest control of public lands from the federal government and put them under state jurisdiction for the purpose of fossil fuel and mineral extraction.”

I contacted Rep. Bishop’s Washington, D.C. office to get their take on the refinery expansion situation and spoke with his Director of Communications. Despite two follow up e-mails and one voice message, I was unable to get a comment.

Bishop will be competing to retain his seat in November. Two Democrats are vying for the right to go toe-to-toe with him. The winner will be decided in a June 26 run off. I was able to speak with Donna McAleer by telephone. She said, “It shouldn’t be a partisan political issue.” She expressed concern about the consequences of “lawmakers becoming beholden to donors.” For her, the bottom line was, “Industry, the environment, and the economy are not mutually exclusive. The quality of air has a direct economic impact, especially regarding tourism, healthcare, the state of the economy, and our future.”

Her opponent, Ryan Combe, sent me his views by e-mail, stating: “With four counties in Utah’s First Congressional District receiving “F” grades on air quality I don’t think now is the is the time to increase the number of facilities, as they are already the largest contributors to our poor air quality. I understand the need to expand the economic activities in Northern Utah, but as a father of two young active children I am passionate that expansion must be done responsibly and without detriment to our communities. What is the benefit of an expanded economy if we are crippling our health in the process?”

Price-Huish had pointed out to me that the opposition in Utah on environmental issues often came from “pro-industrial growth” advocates who support the use of Utah’s “natural resources.” I spoke with Dr. Neil Carman, an environmental scientist, former state air pollution inspector, and clean air program director for the Texas Sierra Club.  He has written extensively about how children’s health is threatened by air toxics. When I asked him if those living in Utah should be concerned about the use of Petcoke he responded, “It’s a very dirty material. When you make Petcoke you are making cancer-causing chemicals in multiple forms. It’s a mess.” Addressing the issues for children he said, “Children are more vulnerable because they play outside 50 percent more than adults, and they tend to be mouth breathers. They are exposed to the life long potential to develop cancer. It is also a concern for unborn fetuses. From the initial exposure to the mother you get multi-generational effects. In a nutshell, children suffer the greatest health damage from air pollution.”

Carman’s advice to parents was direct. He emphasized, “Mother’s need to be proactive because they can’t depend on either the state agencies or the refineries to be totally truthful. Everything is sugar coated. For the oil companies, it’s all about big money. It’s a cat and mouse game.”

With the efforts of Cecilee Price-Huish, Dr. Brian Moench, and the Utah Moms for Clean Air working to educate the public, there is an opportunity for the playing field to be leveled.

This article originally appeared on the website Moms Clean Air Force

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