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John Hollenhorst ReportingOne more bad day and that's it for Cache Valley. The air quality there has been so bad in recent years that one more really bad day will trigger a crackdown by the federal government. The reason it's so bad is a bit of a scientific mystery.
It doesn't take an expert to see it, or a doctor to understand why it matters.
Brad Patch: “I’ve got breathing problems. I’ve got something down in my chest. It’s not good.”
But even experts can't figure out exactly WHY Cache Valley air is so bad.
Rick Sprott, Utah Air Quality Director: “They have some very different chemistry going on up there. In fact, things that don’t go on any place else in the world, that we know of.”
On one level the reason is obvious. 52 today in Salt Lake, 25 in Logan.
Prof. Randy Martin, Utah State University: “So we have this unique little ice-refrigerator bath here. And then all the pollutants we’re mixing into it is also unique.”
And topography certainly is a big factor.
Rick Sprott: “The Cache Valley is kind of a bowl that creates a perfect storm for this particular pollution.”
But when they crunch numbers using the usual factors, air quality measurements are often worse than computers predict.
Lloyd Berentzen, Bear River Health Dept.: "It's a much more complex issue that we ever thought it could be."
Cache Valley officials have launched an aggressive program, asking drivers to drive less, and people who burn to burn cleaner. Meanwhile, scientists are trying to identify the major sources of pollution.
Rick Sprott: “And that has to really be nailed down because we don’t want to regulate the wrong things.”
But it appears that humans are only part of the problem. A lot of scientists think one of the biggest sources of pollution in this valley is cows. That's right! Cows! More than half the particulate pollution is ammonium nitrate. Ammonia is a by-product of cows, lots of cows.
Prof. Randy Martin: “We’ve got 100,000 people, 70,000 cars and 100,000 cattle.”
Cache Valley once was rural. Now it's urban. And both at once, all in one place. If Cache Valley exceeds federal limits one more time in this calendar year, it would force the state to devise a cleanup strategy. That could include a vehicle inspection program, new rules on wood stoves and a variety of other measures.