A public hearing last Wednesday revealed that proposed regulatory steps to improve Tooele Valley’s air during winter won’t be easy and may be fraught with heated debate for years. It also showed that a deeper dialogue between citizens and regulatory agencies is needed before a solution has a chance to succeed.
Last Thursday’s front-page story, “Citizens condemn plan to ban wood burning,” was an account of that hearing, during which more than 100 citizens from the county and the Wasatch Front filled an auditorium at the Tooele County Health Department. Many angrily told the state’s Air Quality Board and Division of Air Quality that banning residents and businesses from burning wood or coal from November to March is unfair, unnecessary and violates their constitutional rights.
That anger was perhaps best demonstrated by one resident who defiantly told the Air Quality Board, “You guys need to go back to Salt Lake. I say burn, burn, burn.”
Yet, Tooele Valley residents may soon no longer do so. According to the state the valley is categorized as a non-attainment area in terms of healthy air. The state asserts the ban is needed on the Wasatch Front and Tooele Valley because of emissions from solid fuel burning devices like stoves, fireplaces and fire pits.
A representative from the Division of Air Quality explained to the audience that wood burning releases microscopic particles and chemicals that react with sunlight and form PM 2.5 — the stuff that causes dense smog during temperature inversions and often exceeds federal health standards.
The representative also said there are approximately 556 EPA-certified stoves and 4,202 uncertified stoves in Tooele County that release over 80 tons of pollution into the air per year.
We agree that solid fuel burning contributes to Tooele Valley’s bad air during winter. But because nearly 50 percent of the county’s available workforce commutes to the Wasatch Front every day, we feel vehicles are a bigger source. According to the Division of Air Quality they are the largest contributor of air pollution in Salt Lake and Tooele valleys. Each vehicle doesn’t emit a lot, but countless thousands of them do.
Although Tooele Valley is less populated than Salt Lake Valley, the number of vehicles and miles driven by residents is significant. According to statistics from the Utah Department of Transportation, local residents drove a combined average of 2.25 million miles per day in 2013. That totals nearly 1 billion miles for the year. It also must be noted that local residents’ vehicles are currently not required to pass an emissions test.
Because of those points, we feel a wood-burning ban from November to March may create only negligible results; the more important initiative is to further reduce vehicle emissions. Which is why we urge for a larger dialogue to proceed between citizens and regulatory agencies about overall air pollution. Dialogue is also needed because the valley’s air quality will be further impacted as the local population increases. Remedies likely won’t come quickly, cheaply or conveniently.
We hope the dialogue also includes voices absent from last week’s public hearing: residents who suffer from asthma or heart/lung disease, or are concerned about their children’s short- and long-term health. For let’s not forget the average human being can go about three weeks without food and about three days without water.
But without breathable air? Only minutes.