Blurring Utah's Image

Protesters poked fun at Utah's fresh-and-clean marketing image at a rally in Salt Lake City this winter.

Protesters poked fun at Utah's fresh-and-clean marketing image at a rally in Salt Lake City this winter. | Karrie Higgins

Most Utah motorists tool around with license plates that depict either the iconic Delicate Arch in Arches National Park against a blue sky or a skier on the state's dramatic Wasatch Range, along with the motto "Life Elevated." A more apt slogan these days might be "Life Polluted." In 2013, Utah's urbanized area along the Wasatch, anchored by Salt Lake City, placed sixth in the American Lung Association's State of the Air national ranking of regions with the worst short-term particle pollution. 

Utah's air problems are worst in winter, when a layer of warm air traps cold air and airborne pollutants in populated valleys. But geography isn't solely at fault: The Salt Lake Valley is home to five oil refineries, a medical-waste incinerator, and the country's largest open-pit copper mine. Utah is also the country's second-fastest-growing state. 

After having their state's air quality compared to that in Beijing, Detroit, Los Angeles, and 1952 London, Utahns have had enough. In January, clean air activists, including the Sierra Club's Utah Chapter, Utah Moms for Clean Air, and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, held the largest environmental rally in state history, attracting more than 4,000 people to the capitol. They were emboldened by a Salt Lake Tribune poll that found that 67 percent of Utahns think the state should impose stricter emissions standards on industries and by the 15-plus clean air bills being introduced in the state legislature. Having just suffered through nearly two dozen "mandatory action days," when the burning of solid fuels (such as wood, coal, and pellets) is banned and car use is discouraged, "people were pissed off," says Sierra Club organizer Tim Wagner.

"The movement has momentum," says Cherise Udell, founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air, which, along with Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, has been educating Utahns about the effects of unhealthy air since 2007. The combined clout of doctors and mothers "makes us untouchable," Udell adds. "Now politicians feel a need to show that they are doing something to address bad air." 

Besides, "Better than Beijing!" would be a really poor license plate slogan.

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