Salt Lake City recently earned the dubious distinction of having the worst air quality in the nation. A serious health hazard linked to childhood asthma and thousands of premature deaths each year in Utah, air pollution comes from more than just fossil fuel combustion. Windblown dust is also a major contributor to particulate matter air pollution, including during our wintertime inversions. The Utah Division of Air Quality estimates that in the winter, almost 4 tons of dust per week is emitted into the Salt Lake Valley airshed.
Dust is a serious health hazard, just like air pollution from combustion. Dust is a source of fine particulate matter—extremely small particles that, when inhaled, affect the heart, blood vessels, and lungs. Inhaling dust causes destruction of lung tissue. People chronically exposed to dust can experience a wide range of poor health outcomes, including shortened life expectancy, high rates of cancer, infectious diseases, respiratory and heart disease, reproductive disorders, adverse pregnancy outcomes, anemia, birth defects, and infant mortality. Recently, studies have connected fine particulate matter pollution with Alzheimer’s disease. Utah has the highest prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease in the nation.
Where is windblown dust coming from in Utah? In the Salt Lake Valley, gravel pits located at Point of the Mountain are one significant source. Subject to a Dust Rule enforced by the Division of Air Quality, these gravel pits are supposed to prevent dust from blowing off their properties by applying water or using other means to prevent dust clouds from spreading over nearby communities. However, local Draper and Lehi residents continue to be concerned when they see dust clouds still emanating from the Geneva and Staker Parson gravel pits located at Point of the Mountain.
According to Erika Doty, long-time resident of Sandy and Draper, “Our daughter, age seven, has asthma, so air quality concerns are top-of-mind for my family. There are days she can barely catch her breath.”
Doctors like Denni Cawley, Executive Director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, believe that dust from the mines must be addressed. “Dust is a really serious air pollutant leading to a large variety of major health problems, such as heart disease, shortened life expectancy, and cancer,” Denni said. “We must know if these gravel facilities are doing all that’s required to protect public health.”
When residents wanted to know whether these gravel facilities were complying with the Dust Rule, Western Resource Advocates submitted an open records request asking that the public be allowed to review the documents that Geneva and Staker Parson are required to maintain under the Dust Rule. The records are supposed to show whether the gravel pits are meeting the requirements of the Dust Rule.
The Division of Air Quality and the Director of DAQ denied the records request, claiming that the sources, not the Director, are in possession of the records. While the Director may request the records and DAQ has reviewed the records on visits to the gravel pits, the Director chose not to request the documents and so refused to give the records to the public. As a result, residents are prevented from reviewing records that the companies are required to keep and cannot determine whether the sources are meeting all the requirements of the Dust Rule.
“Information regarding companies complying or not complying with air pollution laws should be public record and communicated regularly,” Erika said. “The city, county and state should welcome input from citizens on these pollution laws and enforcement. I don’t think the laws – or the enforcement – are nearly tough enough.”
To get this vital air quality information into the hands of the public, Western Resources Advocates filed an appeal in Utah state court, asking the Court to order production of the records. Utah law specifically gives the public access to compliance reports like the documents Western Resource Advocates requested. The request is currently pending.
Awareness and concern about the health of Utahns and the effects of air pollution are growing. Now that EPA has designated the Wasatch Front as a “serious non-attainment area,” the state has one year to come up with a plan to bring Utah’s air quality within health standards. As actions taken by the State thus far have not been sufficient to comply with the law and protect public health, Utahns are asking their government to require further reductions of air pollution emissions, including dust. We hope that Governor Herbert is listening. In the meanwhile, we’ll continue to advocate for solutions for the health of Utahns.
Interested in taking action and staying informed about cleaning up Utah’s air? Please consider signing up to receive updates via email.