Utah's booming population, aging infrastructure impacts on air pollution a growing concern

As part of the 5th annual Utah Climate Week, panelists met following a local documentary's premiere to discuss air pollution on Tuesday.

As part of the 5th annual Utah Climate Week, panelists met following a local documentary's premiere to discuss air pollution on Tuesday. (Mark Wetzel, KSL)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Sen. Derek Kitchen raised 'red flags' regarding the future of the state's air quality during a panel following the premiere of a local documentary centered on Utah's air pollution.

The film "AWAiRE: What's Beneath the Clouds" premiered before an audience on Tuesday, with a panel of speakers afterward to answer questions. While discussing the hope each panelist had regarding Utah's climate solutions, Kitchen, who represents Salt Lake City, began by citing his growing concerns.

The democratic state senator pointed to recent U.S. census data shows that Utah is the fastest-growing state in the country. The state has ranked high regarding its economy, GDP growth and business opportunities consistently over the years leading to what Kitchen called "explosive growth across the Wasatch Front."

While that growth bodes well for the state's opportunities, Kitchen expects it to put "enormous pressure" on Utah's air quality and infrastructure.

"We're going to continue to see more people pile in and we're going to continue to see more cars on the road. We have to electrify our grid. At the end of the day, it comes down to these big systemic changes that we must focus on as a community," Kitchen told the audience. "It's really critical that we continue to push progressive policy that's meaningfully addressing the issues of energy, and the way that we consume things and the air that we breathe."

Part of that progressive policy, Kitchen said, can be found in the way zoning and city planning is done.

A sentiment backed by University of Utah professor Daniel Mendoza, who conducts research in city metropolitan planning and atmospheric sciences. While many climate activists point to industrial air pollution as a main contributor, Mendoza said that industries account for only about 15%, with cars accounting for 50% and the building sector at 30%.

Whether its consumer choices, legislative changes, or government regulation that have the largest influence on air pollution, the panel emphasized collective responsibility.

"We all have an individual responsibility for our own choices, and I think we all also have a responsibility for trying to push our group choices, our society choices, our legislative choices," state Rep. Raymond Ward said. "We can't control those, we have a responsibility to try and push the little bit that we can."

"It is very difficult for me to hear people say 'someone else should fix this' when I see them idling, trying to cheat inspections for their cars, and wanting to get five packages right now," Mendoza added.

But despite the shared responsibility of the community, the harmful effects of air pollution are disproportionate across that community.

Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, or HEAL Utah, found that communities living on the west side of the valley, where freeways and a majority of industrial sources are located, tend to have greater exposures to pollution than communities on the east side.

The disproportionate effects were explored in the film through local Utahn's stories.

"We started digging deeper into this issue and we realized how systemic and endemic and how disparate this issue is across the communities of Salt Lake, and that really expanded the whole scope of it," film director Jack Hessler said.

"No one should be subjected to pollution or harm just because of where they're living or the color of the skin or who they are. You need to learn to grow as a community versus the capitalistic view of growth: Get your money and get your big house and move away from the pollution instead of 'let's get rid of the pollution that is harming and affecting our communities,'" Carmen Valdez, policy associate for HEAL Utah said.

The film's premiere was a part of the fifth annual Utah Climate Week, organized by the Utah Climate Action Network. The annual series of events features a group of organizations, businesses, leaders, and residents to the impact climate change is having on Utah and solutions. The film "What's Beneath the Clouds" is open to public viewing as of Wednesday and can be found online.

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Ashley Fredde covers human services and women's issues for KSL.com. She also enjoys reporting on arts, culture and entertainment news. She's a graduate of the University of Arizona.


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