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All of northern Utah at risk for toxic dust from shrinking Great Salt Lake, scientist tells lawmakers

By Ben Winslow - Fox 13 | Sep 21, 2022
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Dust obscures Antelope Island and the Great Salt Lake on Saturday, June 18, 2022. The lake has hit another record low.
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Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, greets Rich Hansen, manager of the Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, before taking a fan boat tour of the Great Salt Lake in Farmington Bay on Friday, Aug. 19, 2022.
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Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson speaks along the shores of the Great Salt Lake at Farmington Bay on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022.
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Great Salt Lake Collaborative

Editor’s note: This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.

SALT LAKE CITY — All of northern Utah faces risk from dust storms laced with arsenic and other chemicals from a shrinking Great Salt Lake, a scientist warned a panel of lawmakers on Tuesday night.

“The dust is dangerous regardless of what it’s made out of if the concentrations are high enough,” said Dr. Kevin Perry, an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Utah.

Dr. Perry has been researching the dust generated by the increasingly exposed lake bed. He met with the Utah State Legislature’s bipartisan Clean Air Caucus, which is looking into bills dealing with air quality as a result of the dramatically declining Great Salt Lake.

More than 800 miles of lake bed is now exposed as a result of the lake’s record low. Research has shown it has arsenic, lithium, copper and other metals in it that are naturally occurring in portions of the lake. Where water has kept it covered, that is no longer the case and dust storms are increasingly blowing it into areas around northern Utah. Regardless, there are risks of PM10 and PM2.5 particulates from the Great Salt Lake.

“The concentrations that are coming off the lake have, on occasion, violated the national ambient air quality standards,” Dr. Perry said. “Which means they will have an immediate and acute health impact.”

FOX 13 News recorded video of a dust storm blowing off the exposed lake bed and into Salt Lake City when Senator Mitt Romney and House Speaker Brad Wilson visited Farmington Bay as they explored solutions to save the Great Salt Lake.

What is unknown yet is how much it takes for these chemicals to harm our health. Dr. Perry identified “hot spots” around Farmington Bay and Bear River Bay, which are near populated areas. But all of northern Utah is at risk, depending on the direction of the wind.

“Today we have wind from the south. Tomorrow, we’re going to have wind form the north, which means dust from those hot spots will be moved all over the Wasatch Front and everybody from Tremonton to Tooele to Salt Lake County to Provo to Park City — everybody will be exposed to dust coming off the Great Salt Lake at some point,” Dr. Perry said.

He encouraged the legislature to spend money to help Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality monitor the dust and analyze it to understand what’s in it and how it could impact human health. It will take at least 10 feet of new water to help avert the dust problems.

“We’re well past the tipping point for dust emission,” he told the Clean Air Caucus.

The Great Salt Lake hit a new record low this year and Utah’s Department of Natural Resources said it continues to decline. It is a result of climate change, drought and water diversion. The agency told lawmakers on Tuesday they predicted further declines without ongoing action to get water into the lake and were exploring some novel solutions, including increased cloud seeding to generate more rain and snow.

Alarmed by the shrinking lake, the legislature and Governor Spencer Cox have pledged action. House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, told FOX 13 News it could cost billions. Newly-appointed Utah Department of Natural Resources director Joel Ferry has called the lake his “top priority.” They passed a series of water conservation bills and gave $40 million to a pair of environmental groups to specifically secure water for the Great Salt Lake.

On Tuesday, one of those environmental groups said they were working to secure deals. Marcelle Shoop with the Audubon Society declined to give specifics on where they are, but told the caucus they were working on agreements.

“We would be more than happy once the agreements are in place to come back and provide more substantive details,” she said.

For members of the Clean Air Caucus, it was a call to action. The group’s co-chair, Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, told FOX 13 News he believed the legislature can do more.

“What the state, in my mind, needs to be thinking about is some ongoing money to go towards having water going into the lake in a reliable way,” he said. “That we can know it’s going to be there for us.”

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