Wasatch Front's inversion season starting to set up

Hazy air pollution shrouds downtown Salt Lake City as
cars move along Beck Street near 400 West on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020.

(Steve Griffin, KSL)

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SALT LAKE CITY — The air quality conditions along the Wasatch Front Wednesday are good, with values of fine-particulate pollution well below the federal threshold set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

So why does the forecast from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality over the next three days describe conditions as moderate?

The contradiction is part of the agency's efforts to be proactive, sort of a shot over the bow to urge residents to reduce emissions from homes and vehicles before conditions get worse.

"We are very proactive in our forecasting," said Bo Call, monitoring section manager for the department's Division of Air Quality. "Historically we have seen that pollution levels can double from day to day."

Regulators hosted an air quality briefing Wednesday as part of one way to get the word out about the Wasatch Front inversion season, which typically is at its worst in January and the first part of February.

The state's periodic struggle with air pollution is a critical challenge the division and residents face after a stagnant weather system settles in and traps emissions in the valley like a lid.

"All the pollution we create can't escape or go anywhere," Call said.

The manager likened action now to filling a bathtub.

Downtown buildings poke through the inversion in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019.
Downtown buildings poke through the inversion in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, KSL)

Instead of turning on the water full blast, any action people can take to slow the flow of pollutants and try to reduce it to a drip will keep that bathtub from overflowing.

For the last couple years, the inversion season in Utah has been mild and regulators are hoping to keep it that way.

While weather forecasts dwindle in accuracy the farther out they go, Call said it looks to be that the Wasatch Front might get lucky this year if a series of small storms keep the air stirred up and flush out pollutants.

Fine-particulate pollution is linked to a variety of harmful health effects, including increased incidences of stroke and respiratory ailments, and in some studies excess pollution is blamed for early onset of dementia and decreased mental acuity.

The Wasatch Front, which for many years was designated by the EPA as out of attainment for the federal standard of 35 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter, recently was reclassified as in attainment after meeting the rolling three-year average for the pollutant.


While the state's metropolitan areas did have episodic spikes in fine-particulate pollution, Call said it hasn't been enough to put the state back on EPA's list of non-complying regions.

Call said the most effective way to fight pollution is for motorists to seek the cleaner burning Tier 3 fuel sold at a variety of gas stations and, if they have a choice, get behind the wheel of the newest car at their disposal.

The website provides information to motorists on where to buy the fuel.

Coupled with a newer model car, using Tier 3 fuel can result in a reduction in emissions by as much as 80%, according to Call.

While Utah regulators have not yet been able to quantify how much of an impact use of the fuel has made so far, Call anticipates significant reductions over time.

"The benefits are potentially huge."

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Amy Joi O'Donoghue
Amy Joi O’Donoghue is a reporter for the Utah InDepth team at the Deseret News with decades of expertise in land and environmental issues.


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