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SALT LAKE CITY — Air quality has become such a dominant issue along the Wasatch Front that nearly everyone — 99 percent of residents — are willing to change behavior to reduce pollution.
That statistic, released this week in a survey by Envision Utah, is encouraging to the Utah Divison of Air Quality and clean air advocates.
"I think the public is finally understanding the seriousness of the issue, and much of the state leadership are now playing catchup," said Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
The research by Envision Utah tapped 500 respondents from Aug. 30-Sept. 8, involving residents who lived along the greater Wasatch Front where air quality is perpetually at its worst: Salt Lake, Davis, Utah and Weber counties, and more rural areas that also struggle such as Cache, Tooele and Box Elder counties.
The problem of "air quality" was cited as the No. 1 pressing issue interfering with the quality of life, echoing similar conclusions reached by an economic development task force.
Beyond the complaint, however, Utah residents were willing to substitute action for criticism, with 60 percent of respondents indicating they would be more willing to use mass transit if it were provided for free during the worst air quality periods. In addition, they said a $1 gas tax would definitely deter their travel, with two-thirds saying they would curb vehicle use if they faced such a hefty hike.
Envision Utah, which is shepherding Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's efforts through the Clean Air Action Team, reached out to gauge public opinion in an initial effort that will serve as a larger blueprint for action on the air quality front.
The Wasatch Front is plagued by air pollution spikes during dreary winter temperature inversions and in the heat of summer when ozone levels reach dangerous limits.
Federal regulators have deigned multiple counties as "nonattainment" areas for meeting clean air standards — meaning pollution has reached a threshold that makes it unsafe for public health.
The survey delivered somewhat curious messages for those who operate in the arena of informing the public about air quality.
On the one hand, the majority of people, 78 percent, said they believe air quality has worsened over the past 20 years, when it has markedly improved, according to the Utah Division of Air Quality.
"It is indeed a perception that our air is worse than it was years ago," said division spokeswoman Donna Kemp Spangler. "That's simply not the case. We have stricter state and federal air pollution rules and laws, cleaner cars and tighter controls on industry. I think people are more aware of the issue than ever before and demanding solutions. Poor air quality is just not acceptable, even though our mountain, valley topography, economy and growing population create challenges."
I think the public is finally understanding the seriousness of the issue, and much of the state leadership are now playing catchup.
–Dr. Brian Moench, president ofUtah Physicians for a Healthy Environment
Those perceptions — or concerns — for Moench means that the message about air quality is getting out.
"When we first started our group, we decided that the only way things would change is if the public demanded it. In order for the public to demand it, we knew they would have to hear the full extent of the health consequences, and not the traditional message that air pollution may cause some minor systems or be detrimental just to sensitive groups," Moench said.
The result, he stressed, is people urging action.
"I'm very encouraged that if the public continues to bring pressure on the state's power brokers, real change and cleaner air is on the horizon," Moench said.