A bipartisan group of Utah lawmakers announced plans Thursday for a series of environmental proposals to fix the state’s poor air quality, which was so bad in the Salt Lake City area this week that some students were prevented from going outside for their school recesses.
The group of more than a dozen lawmakers told reporters that the state’s severe air pollution is hurting Utah residents and could damage the state’s economy amid warnings that businesses and people may try to avoid the state. The proposals include removing emission testing exemptions and boosting the use of solar thermal technology.
Rep. Patrice Arent, a Democrat, said the state has passed more clean air legislation during the last three sessions than ever, but that there is a lot more work to do.
The push is the latest in a multi-year effort to remedy the state’s bad air problem, which has put a strain on residents’ daily life and the state’s reputation as an outdoors mecca destination.
On Wednesday, University of Utah students bought all of a campus group’s collection of pollution masks, said Emerson Anderson, a coordinator for the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund, a University of Utah grant program that distributed the masks.
Air quality issues are a major problem during the winter in Utah, which suffers from weather inversions that doctors warn can cause health problems, especially for pregnant women, people with asthma and the elderly.
The winter inversions are a phenomenon in northern Utah’s urban corridor fueled by weather and geography. Cold, stagnant air settles in the bowl-shaped mountain basins, trapping tailpipe and other emissions that have no way of escaping. It creates a brown, murky haze of air pollution that engulfs the metro area of Salt Lake City.
Provo, Logan and Brigham City were among the top five cities with the worst air quality in the nation on Thursday, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index.
Most Utah school districts follow the guidance issued by state health and environmental quality officials about when to keep kids inside, while allowing principals to make the final decisions on a daily basis.
The state’s recess guidelines calls for all students to stay inside when the air quality index reaches red, the worst designation.
When it is in the next category down, orange, the state recommends that schools keep students with respiratory conditions such as asthma inside but let others go out. Some schools, however, keep all children inside on yellow air days, the third rung on the air quality index.
The air quality in the Salt Lake City area has been in the yellow category or higher all this week, spiking up to red Tuesday afternoon. The air quality index was in the orange category Thursday.
Hundreds of schools in Salt Lake City and surrounding suburbs were advised this to keep their students inside during recess.
Most principals are checking online or on an smartphone app to track the air throughout the day, said Jeff Haney, spokesman for the Canyons School District.
“When the air is gunky, they pay attention,” Haney said. “We don’t want to have our kids get sick if they go run around outside.”