Dr. Brian Moench, president of Physicians for a Healthy Environment; Cherise Udell, founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air and Matt Pacenza, policy director for HEAL Utah have a dirty secret in common: They’re hoping for a really bad inversion next winter.

To be fair, what they really want is fortuitous timing in the arrival of the Wasatch Front’s annual air pollution horror. Last year, weather conditions conspired to shroud the valley in choking, particulate-laden smog just in time for the kick-off of the 2014 State Legislature. A rally for clean air at the Capitol drew 4,000 angry residents who clamored for action on the dirty air that is threatening their health, their children’s health, economic development and the otherwise fluffy reputation of winter in Utah.

It even motivated many lawmakers, who could no longer ignore a problem that was stinging their eyes. “We were in the awkward position of hoping for a hard inversion,” Moench says with a laugh. “If the pollution was light, it would be hard to get a turnout.”

Udell says the inversion brought the conservative, industry friendly lawmakers an onslaught of letters and emails they couldn’t ignore.

Consequently, lawmakers sponsored nearly 30—a record number—of clean-air proposals, from tax credits for buying transit passes (failed) to creating a resource coordinator (passed). One of the big wins, however, was a turnabout by Gov. Gary Herbert, whose campaign is heavily funded by industry. “Last year he was our arch-nemesis, then, he had an epiphany. I don’t know where that came from,” Udell says. Perhaps part of it was the “Moms’” relentless attacks on Herbert. “I skewered him in an op-ed piece,” Udell acknowledges. “I went for the arteries.”

Salt Lake's winter pollution often vies with that of Beijing, but its fickleness allows lawmakers to ignore it. But last year's smog drove hundreds of protestors up Capitol Hill. Photo by Tim Brown.

Clean-air advocates were optimistic about the session.

Then, as the 45-day legislative session entered its final weeks, the air up and got better. And the progress of most of the bills stalled. In the end, nine clean-air bills passed, including tax credits and grants for schools and citizens to transition to less-polluting vehicles and a plan to reduce wood burning. The small victories gave hope for the next session, but were not, Pacenza says, “earth shattering.”

The unlucky timing of a couple of storms followed by blue skies froze any “game-changing” legislation, Udell says. “Unfortunately, more would have been accomplished if the inversion had lasted longer. By the end of the session, [the proposals] had petered out in large part because the air cleared up.”

Says Moench: “It was an illustration of the frailties of the human psyche; we have short memories and we focus on immediate needs. It’s something we have to fight against. We know the problem will not go away by itself. This can’t be a temporary commitment.”

A mild inversion season would be a major set back for the cause, agrees Pacenza of Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah. But, the governor’s change of heart is significant for cleaner air. Industries are monitored by state regulators, the Division of Air Quality and its board, who are appointed by the governor. “It’s hard for citizens to play a role in it. [HEAL is] paying attention to the details and will try to tweak the sausage,” he says. “Little by little, we are turning the ship around.”

Pacenza says the biggest boost—aside from the initially rotten air—was economic development promoters warning lawmakers the bad air “was an economic threat.” Committees heard anecdotes about corporate decision makers who loved the idea of moving to Utah, then visited during an inversion and balked, saying they couldn’t risk their employees’ and families’ health. “We heard more than one of those stories,” Udell says.

Though air is relatively clear now—except for the less-visible, still-unhealthy summer ozone pollution—clean-air activists are trying to keep momentum into next winter. The push at the 2015 Legislature, Moench says, will be a bill to allow the state to set its own pollution standards— unhampered by federal law and to lobby for a philosophical shift away from spending on highway construction, which only contributes to the air problem, to mass transit expansion. In short: game changers. 

Waiting for the Moral Majority

Physicians for a Healthy Environment have clout with lawmakers because they credibly speak to the health implications of pollution, which extend beyond respiratory issues and cancer to pregnancy complications and crippling depression. 

“Some lawmakers insist on seeing us as radicals,” says Brian Moench, the group’s president. “We are trying to help people understand what air pollution is doing to us and our children. Protecting public health should take priority over anything else. People who think we can have economic development without clean air are mistaken.”

But the physicians understand how Utah politics work: The pleas from doctors and even moms may not move lawmakers, but a word from the LDS Church likely would. “With a disproportionate effect on children and children in the womb,” says Moench, “this is nothing less than a moral issue.”

Moench says the group met with high Mormon Church officials in 2009. “We asked for some specific things—I don’t want to reveal too much. But we didn’t get the response, and certainly not the urgency, we had hoped for.”

Back>>>Read other stories in our July/August 2014 issue.