Air quality advocates push for statewide reform at grassroots Roy town hall

Wednesday , August 03, 2016 - 6:00 AM4 comments

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

A group of air quality lobbyists knows citizens throughout Utah care about solutions to the state’s pollution. They’re trying to expand their message and membership from their core base in Salt Lake City to other Wasatch Front counties and beyond.

On Tuesday night, Aug. 2, air advocates with Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Utah Moms for Clean Air and HEAL Utah held a community forum at the Roy Library. They discussed pollution’s health impacts and how Northern Utah residents can make a difference at home and throughout the state. They’ll hold a few more of these forums, mostly in Salt Lake and Utah counties.

“With these town hall meetings, we’re trying to personalize the issue,” said Dr. Brian Moench of Utah Physicians. “We’re trying to get them invested in steps to improve it.”

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Air quality advocates say their voices are often drowned out at the state Legislature by better-funded lobbyists for industry interests. That’s why they want to see more citizens stepping up. 

“The key to changing public policy is, obviously, a Legislature that’s more sympathetic to these issues,” Moench said. “And the way to do that is to get a constituency that’s educated and motivated. That’s what we’re trying to achieve.”

Making a difference locally

Even short-term exposure to bad air quality can have immense impacts on a person’s health, air quality advocates said. That includes the Wasatch Front’s winter particulate pollution during inversions and summertime ozone pollution.

Utah Physicians figures it causes up to 2,000 premature deaths each year along the Wasatch Front. Unborn infants and children are particularly vulnerable.

“There is no safe level of air pollution. Every little bit of air pollution will have an impact,” Moench said.

Some of those impacts — like cancer, reduced IQs in children and scarred lungs — sound scary. Residents throughout the state can take charge, improving air quality through their houses and habits.

“Unlike industry, you and I aren’t polluting for any kind of profit,” said Ingrid Griffee, of Utah Moms. “You and I are polluting in order to get to work, only so we can pay our mortgage and go to the grocery. We’re polluting so we can get our kids to school. We’re polluting to keep our homes warm.”

Multiplying all those small actions by all the families living along the Wasatch Front, the pollution builds fast. It can get knocked down a notch through small changes.

Above all else, air advocates encourage motorists to kill their idling time, especially in school parking areas. Those in the market for a new vehicle should pay attention to ratings and buy the cleanest car in their class, Griffee said, and explore electrical vehicle and hybrid vehicles as an option. 

Beyond driving, Utah residents can curb pollution through their homes. Natural gas furnaces and water heaters emit exhaust that pollutes local airsheds. Better home insulation and low-emission water heaters can cut down on that pollution. 

And while it’s been a controversial topic in recent years, Griffee said eliminating wood-burning can have drastic impacts on a home’s pollution footprint.  

“It penetrates really easily into neighbor’s homes, and it’s really toxic,” Griffee said. “It’s about being a good neighbor and making good choices for your community.”

Make a difference through the Legislature

The most effective way for Utah citizens to make a dent in pollution, however, is by following policy issues and talking to their elected officials. 

HEAL Utah creates legislative scorecards each session to grade lawmakers on their air quality actions. The average score for a member of the House in 2016 was a D-plus. In the Senate, the average score was a C-minus. 

A policy initiative they’d like to see citizens pushing is a statewide focus on tougher emissions testing, including mandatory diesel vehicle testing throughout the Wasatch Front. They’d also like more investment in public transit and a stronger urban planning focus on walkable, bikeable communities. 

Beyond transportation, HEAL’s lobbyists want incentives for energy-efficient retrofits in homes. More importantly, they want tighter state-mandated building standards.

“It’s pretty easy after the fact to change out a light bulb,” said Ashley Soltysiak with HEAL. “But you’re not going to go back in and redo the insulation of your home or build it with 2-by-6 walls after it’s constructed.”

Making the connection

If elected officials don’t hear from voters, they only hear from paid lobbyists, Griffee said. And the lobbyists with the most resources — and the most sway — come from industry, she said.

“We have seen lobbyists texting legislators on the committee before the vote. That’s how chummy they are,” she said. “That’s what we’re up against.”

Environmental groups like Utah Physicians, Utah Moms and HEAL have made it easy to fire off a pre-drafted email on action issues. Lawmaker’s inboxes are now flooded with boilerplate emails that go unread. To grab elected officials’ attention, though, voters need to make more of an effort. 

“They are overwhelmed with emails to the point where that form of communication is losing its impact,” Moench said. “If you really want to make a difference, face-to-face conversations, phone calls, actual hard-copy letters ... are undoubtedly going to have more impact.”

The public forum in Roy — the only one scheduled in Northern Utah — only saw around 20 attendees. But the message resonated with Courtney Harris of Roy, who dropped in with her two children, ages 11 and 7. 

She said more citizen voices can make a difference in local issues, but first they need to recognize the problem.

“The diesel emission smoke and the smog, every winter we see it ... we hear from politicians that, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve got to clear this pollution out.’ But their legislation speaks differently,” she said. “I’m 40, and I’m just barely realizing how serious this stuff is. It takes a while to get involved.” 

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiaoutside or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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