Cache cows contributing to pollution problem in northern Utah

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For weeks, smog has been watering our eyes and clogging our lungs, and Utah is under increasing federal pressure to clean it up. The state has to devise a plan, but in one part of Utah that effort faces a major complication: cows.

Who would have thought, in a big city like Logan, that cars would share the blame with cows for air pollution? "We have two sides of the equation, yes," said Grant Koford, of the Bear River Health Department.

At Logan's air monitoring stations, when winter air is sucked through a white filter, it turns blackish gray in less than 24 hours. Eighty percent of the gunk is ammonium nitrate particles.

Cows get much of the credit, along with horses and sheep on farms in the Logan area. When livestock urine evaporates, it releases tremendous amounts of ammonia. Cars emit nitrogen oxides. The two compounds combine chemically to make ammonium nitrate, the small particles that smog up the air and choke the lungs.

In theory, there are two ways to tackle the problem: reduce nitrogen oxide from cars and reduce ammonia from cows.

"Ammonia has been here forever, in abundance, and we don't know right now if we attack that how much of a benefit we're going to get," Koford said.

State officials say the cows produce such an overabundance of ammonia that even if they got rid of two-thirds of the livestock, it wouldn't make much difference.

There's more than enough ammonia to sop up all the available car exhaust and turn it into ammonium nitrate particles. Take away two-thirds of the ammonia, and the same amount of particulate smog will remain.

"The nitrogen oxides from the cars, we can go after those and make an impact," Koford said.

That puts Cache County in pretty much the same place as the rest of northern Utah. In three years, the state has to devise a plan to reduce emissions, primarily from vehicles, or we could face the loss of federal highway funds.


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John Hollenhorst


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