Editor’s note: This is the fourth and final installment of a series of articles on Tooele County’s air quality.
The Tooele County Health Department once surveyed residents about their top concerns about the community’s health. Environmental issues surfaced time and time again.
The results surprised Jeff Coombs, who oversees the county’s environmental health as the health department’s deputy director. But he said the environment — and air quality — consistently ranked among the community’s top concerns.
Despite the large and complicated nature of Tooele County’s air quality situation, or perhaps even because of it, locals’ everyday choices and habits affect the concentration of harmful pollutants in the air and, by extension, the health of their community, Coombs said.
“We can all contribute,” he said. “We can all do our part, and I think if we all do our part, it could have a significant impact on our air quality.”
Driving is at the top of Coombs’ list of behaviors to change. But when it comes to air quality, it’s not necessarily driving less, but driving smarter, that counts.
The vast majority of emissions from cars are produced during the vehicle’s cold-start cycle, said Bill Reiss, an engineer with the Utah Division of Air Quality. So while driving less miles overall helps to reduce air pollution, the goal is to consolidate trips and reduce the number of times drivers start their cars, he explained.
Carpooling, working a more consolidated schedule during the week, or taking public transit into work, are all effective measures local commuters might take to reduce their contributions to Utah’s dirty air, Coombs said. And according to the Utah Transit Authority, the latter option may become easier in the near future.
In addition to several vanpools and park-and-ride lots that encourage locals to arrange their own group transportation into Salt Lake, UTA currently operates three Tooele to Salt Lake bus routes with a combined daily average of about 650 riders.
However, demand for buses in Tooele County, particularly during the morning, has convinced UTA of a need for additional morning flex routes, said UTA spokesman Remi Barron.
There is currently no official schedule for expanding transit offerings in the county, but Barron said those routes could be made available as early as April.
There are also local initiatives in the works to get residents out of their cars and on their feet. The health department’s LiveFit coalition, in conjunction with local municipal governments, recently began a project to identify areas in the county where more adequate sidewalks, bike paths and trails might encourage residents to walk or bike to the store, school, work or other daily destinations.
The coalition believes creating a more walkable community will not only improve air quality, but also help residents fight the local obesity epidemic.
However, Coombs said that despite their interest in environmental issues, locals are less than enthusiastic when it comes to curbing their car use.
“I think we all love our cars,” he said. “Especially in the west, we love that independence — that’s hard to give up.”
Coombs said local residents can also make a big difference for local air quality by striving to comply with the state’s no-burn periods and policies. No-burn days became mandatory in Tooele Valley last November, and because the policy is new to the area, locals haven’t entirely adjusted, he said.
Residents who live within Tooele Valley can do their part by not burning solid fuels such as wood, coal or charcoal during times of poor air quality.
That includes devices such as fireplaces and stoves, as well as outdoor firepits or grills. Doing so will not only spare locals from potential fines of up to $300, but will also improve the overall health of the community, Coombs said.
The no-burn regulations do not apply to outlying communities, which are not included in the EPA-designated nonattainment area.
Current burn and air quality reports are always listed on the Tooele County Health Department’s homepage at tooelehealth.org. More detailed information can be obtained from the Utah Division of Air Quality’s website. The division has also produced a mobile app that delivers air quality forecasts directly to mobile devices.