SALT LAKE CITY -- Using the momentum of a growing number of Utah residents who are dissatisfied with the unhealthy haze hanging over the Wasatch Front, clean-air advocates rallied in modern-day record fashion Saturday to ensure they are heard by Gov. Gary Herbert and state lawmakers.
About 5,000 people, many wearing mouth and nose respiratory masks -- and a few gas masks -- attended the Utah "Clean Air, No Excuses" Rally on the front steps of the state Capitol.
The rally, sponsored by a host of groups that are proponents of clean air, and billed as the largest rally in recent Utah history, was organized with the intent of getting state leaders to act on measures that will reduce air pollution as it relates to freeways, mass transit, diesel fumes, wood burning, refineries and "dirty energy addiction."
"The demand for clean air has a momentum and a life of its own now," Utah Moms for Clean Air president and founder Cherise Udell told the Standard-Examiner.
Udell was one of several people who addressed what she called a "mainstream" crowd who participated by singing to made-up lyrics set to different tunes referencing the state's bad air.
Others waved signs. One sign read: "The Desolation of Smog," a take-off on the Hobbit film titled "The Desolation of Smaug."
One young man had a sign reading "I Like Tacos."
"When the air is bad, and I can't see the sun, I go back to my place and make a taco," Salt Lake City resident John Crawford said in explaining how his sign relates to the air pollution problem.
One man carrying a sign had to be picked up and moved by Utah Highway Patrol troopers after he had climbed out onto what was a noticed restricted area.
"I got no problem with the sign," one trooper said.
Overall, Udell said she was thrilled with the turnout, and for the first time since her group was established in 2007, she believes the fight to clear the air has reached a tipping point as a result of the haze hanging over the valley becoming a "state embarrassment" that is receiving international attention. She said it is something that if not addressed could impact the future of the state's economy.
"We are done nibbling. We want structural changes," said Udell, whose group of 2,200 members, along with other groups, will be presenting a petition to the governor, House and Senate requesting measures be taken immediately this legislative session to address the air pollution.
Dr. Brian Moench, president and founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, a group of 300 health care professionals, said their group since 2007 has been trying to educate the public of the health threat poor air quality brings.
"The message in the medical research is what has got the public concerned and demanding action on it," said Moench, who co-hosted the rally with former television news anchor Dick Nourse.
"(Poor air quality is) unhealthy for everybody," Moench said, and not just those sensitive groups that have been identified.
And Moench, like Udell, is of the opinion the haze is also a threat to the state's economy.
"Our air pollution stifles our economy as much as it does our lungs," Moench said of how the poor air quality along the Wasatch Front has become the most dominant feature of the city, resulting in an adverse effect on the local economy and property values, while state leaders fail to address the problem in a meaningful way.
The air can be improved, in spite of politicians blaming the haze on the mountains or the bowl effect topography of the Wasatch Front, he said.
"That is one of our frustrations," Moench said of the excuses used by state leaders. But now, he said, based on polling, there is widespread dissatisfaction with lawmakers regarding this issue, and his hope is Saturday's rally sends them a powerful message.
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker encouraged the crowd to lobby their lawmakers for clean-air legislation, and to be civil when doing so.
Others who spoke at the event included Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, and Carl Ingwell, founder and director of CleanAirNow.
This effort has been a long time coming, and there will be political ramifications if lawmakers do not respond, Ingwell said, providing report card grades at the rally on what lawmakers have done to this point.
"What do we even have a government for, if not to look out for their constituents," he said.
But it would be insulting, Ingwell said, if clean air proponents are forced to take the "business angle" of the debate in getting a response from leaders, while the issue of public health is being ignored.
"We want to drive home the point to legislators that this is something that has to be addressed," said Salt lake City resident Elise Lazar, who was handing out mouth and nose respiratory masks with the words "Bad Air" with a slash printed on them.
"People are more important than the economy," Lazar said.
A link to the "Clean Air, No Excuses" petition can be found at www.utahmomsforcleanair.org.
Contact reporter Bryon Saxton at 801-625-4244 or email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @BryonSaxton.