SALT LAKE CITY — At least one Utah lawmaker is wondering why the $1.8 billion makeover of Salt Lake City International Airport is being undertaken with no questions aimed at the air pollution impacts and if its current location is suitable.
"Nobody even brings it up and it dumbfounds me," said Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville. "The biggest crisis we had at the Legislature all winter long is this air pollution in the Salt Lake Valley, and now we hear they are going to expand, and I am blown away by it."
Hinkins brought up his concerns during an air quality discussion among members of the Legislature's Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee on Thursday.
"All the time I expect they are going to move the airport," he said. "And I hear they are expanding. They've got to be one of the biggest polluters in the valley."
Afterward, Hinkins said it made little sense to him that medical waste incinerator Stericycle was "chased out" of its North Salt Lake location while building a bigger airport to handle one-third more passengers — 30 million by 2035 — gets no attention.
"It's crazy to me," he said.
The airport broke ground July 18 on its nearly $2 billion project to essentially replace what exists on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, shaving the number of gates and replacing existing terminals but ultimately creating a transportation system that could someday feature a new runway.
Construction would be carried out in phases, with new parking, a new terminal and half the concourse slated to be completed by 2019.
Airport spokeswoman Barbara Gann said the current airport was built to handle 10 million passengers a year, and it is handling twice that number now. The project is designed to boost efficiencies and meet the needs of a hub for air transportation, while including some expansion components.
Gann said details on the number of flights or planes that would be added — if any — were not available Thursday afternoon.
"In general, the project is not necessarily targeting only expansion but aimed at efficiency as well," she said.
Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality, told committee members that Salt Lake City International Airport is classified as a major source polluter, with most of that concentrated in takeoffs and landings.
Citing U.S. Department of Transportation numbers, the Worldwatch Institute — a global environmental research organization — said a Boeing 747 spends an average of 32 minutes landing, taxiing and taking off.
The emission of nitrogen oxides at a major international airport with 1,000 flights a day would be equivalent to the nitrogen oxides produced by all the cars in a city of 2 million or 3 million people, according to the transportation agency. Salt Lake City International Airport handles 696 flights a day on average, Gann said.
Because not all planes are as large as a Boeing 747, the nitrogen oxide load would be smaller at Salt Lake City International, but another study suggests a major airport emits on a daily basis 5 tons of nitrogen oxide — a precursor to the Wasatch Front's notorious smog problem. Five tons of that pollutant is the equivalent of 3 million vehicle miles traveled, according to the institute.
Data from the Division of Air Quality shows that nitrogen oxide emissions at Salt Lake City International Airport make up about 3 percent of the county's total load of that pollutant. Its percentage of sulfur dioxide hovers in that range as well.
Bird said ground operations at the airport also factor into air pollution loads, as well as pollution generated by the vehicle traffic it generates. Hinkins said air pollution was among the considerations in the demolition of the Stapleton Airport 3 miles east of downtown Denver and building a new one more than 25 miles away from the heart of the city — Denver International.
"Our air is terrible," he said. "You would think there would be some talk of a similar move, or making more improvements to airports like Provo so I would not have to drive into the Salt Lake Valley and add to the pollution," Hinkins said.
Though moving the airport away from Denver may have helped with metro air pollution, the institute noted that a city study found that all the added vehicle traffic — 33 million passenger miles a day — made regional pollution worse.
But Hinkins contends that the airport's true contribution to the air pollution problem lacks transparency because it is wrapped up in the cloak of the Federal Aviation Administration — which has a reach and purpose beyond what the state air quality division can track or even regulate.
"I've had to sit on an airplane for an hour on the tarmac waiting to take off while they de-ice it, and yet they talk about these little cars idling," he said. "To me it is the most obvious thing I have seen as an air polluter in the valley."
The institute noted that at any given time, 23 planes at Denver may be at high-idle for 40 minutes at a time.