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Clean Air in Utah – What does it cost?

Air Quality.

Hear those two words, associate it with Utah and your next thought is probably—“It’s Bad.”

Not Bad as in It’s cool! or It’s hot!  But those are both clues to the seasons of INVERSION.

Bad as in “My lungs burn when I breathe in the air,” and “I can’t see the mountains anymore” Bad.

Being the solution-minded, number-crunching Mama that I am, I was excited to join in a roundtable with the folks from Rio Tinto (aka Kennecott Utah) as we discussed air quality.

Why talk to Kennecott about clean air?  Well, they employ many resident Smart People, like Chris, who have studied and worked on the issue for their entire adult life.  Plus, dollar-for-dollar, they make one of the largest investments in the state, spending over $1 billion here.  As a company, Rio Tinto employs over 17,000 people, makes donations to places like the Utah Natural History Museum and Rio Tinto Stadium, and leads the way on the discussion with other businesses about air quality.

Kennecott -  Utah Natural History Museum - Rio Tinto Stadium #kennecott

Which brings me to the idea of cost – Not all costs are monetary.  What does it “cost” to have clean air in Utah?  Are there social costs? What are the opportunity costs?  How about the economic costs?  For every cost there can be a benefit.  But first…

The Basics –

Let me lay out some simple facts –

What is an Inversion?

When a layer of warm air is parked over a big pocket of cold air, it is considered inverted since the normal air pattern is cold over warm.  During an inversion, any pollutants or emissions released into the air get trapped under the warm air.  Because we live in a geographic area with a valley floor and mountains surrounding us, the pollution gets trapped between the mountains until the weather pattern changes.  A good storm front can sweep the inversion away.

What is PM2.5 and where does it come from?

PM2.5 stands for Particulate Matter that is 2.5 micrometers in size. Hint: A strand of human hair is about 70 micrometers in size.  PM2.5 can be human-caused from construction sites or farms (area sources), power plants (point sources), cars and trucks (mobile sources) or even fireplaces.

How Particulate Matter Forms #kennecott

What’s the “cost” of having PM2.5 in our air?

Because it’s small, we can breathe it in, affecting our lungs and respiratory system.  Not taking a nice, long run outside is an opportunity cost.  Perhaps it costs us a trip to the doctor if we have deteriorating health.

To see it all in action, check out the video —

Solutions may seem to cost us time or convenience but the long-term benefits for everyone are clear, literally — CLEANER AIR!

What Can We DO?

When I hear of a problem, I want an answer.  We know there’s no SINGLE answer to Air Quality in Utah – Where there are many causes, we have many solutions, both big and small.

Sources and Solutions

More than half of our problem comes from mobile sources – that’s your car and my car driving around town.  Another big piece is the pollution from solvents, paints, cleaners, wood-burning stoves, furnaces – from the hundreds of homes and businesses counted as area sources.  Finally, a point source is a specific location like the copper mine, where big trucks drive around.  From latest figures, point sources only account for thirteen percent of the problem.

Kennecott and Utah's Air Quality

Marking out the sources and causes of poor air quality, I noted another INVERSION.

The relatively SMALL number of point sources is governed by a HIGH number of regulations.

The relatively LARGE number of area sources and mobile sources are governed by a LOW number of regulations.

In other words, if Kennecott doesn’t have a permit to drive a truck in its mine, it’s not allowed to operate it = Highly Regulated.  However, In the Low-Regulation world, we can choose to drive our cars.  No one will stop us for not carpooling, even if all of our collective driving causes more harm to our air.

To me, the answer lies in taking personal responsibility – SELF Regulation.

Here are just a few ideas of what Individuals can do to help improve our air quality:

  • Work from Home – Ask your employer if you can telecommute 1 day a week. (Cost: Missing out on the water cooler jokes. Benefit: Saving gas and a short commute for lunch in your kitchen.)
  • Turn Your Key – Be Idle Free (Cost: A few seconds of time to turn a car back on. Benefit: Save on fuel costs and reduce the emissions from your idling car.)
  • Combine your errands into one trip (Cost: Using a single, larger block of time for errands. Benefit: Driving fewer absolute miles and having to go out less often.)
  • Carpool or Use Mass Transit (Cost: Giving up the independent-car mentality. Benefit: More time to read or make friends with coworkers or commuters.)
  • Use a Snow Shovel, Not a Snow Blower (Cost: Snow removal may take a bit longer. Benefit: You build muscles and you reduce both noise and fuel emissions.)
  • Become a Clean Air Champion Business (Cost: Investing time to educate your workplace and register. Benefit: Fame, recognition, warm fuzzies from reduced company fuel costs.  Plus I hear you can get a cool gadget for your car to track your idling, with auto-shut off when you’ve idled too long.)

My pledge – I’m a pro at mapping out many errands into one trip. So if you want to carpool with me on your next day of errands, I’ll be hitting Costco, the bank, the library and the nail salon. See how easy it’ll be to join me for a Mama Errand Day? p.s. I’ve got a new recycle tote to share too!

Kennecott Shopping Tote - Company Values #kennecott

More Resources

Still wondering what more can be done?  Here are some great resources to learn more.

Utah Division of Air Quality (The DAQ)

Clear the Air Challenge

50 Suggestions to Improve Air Quality

Air Quality can only continue to improve when we ALL help out.  What may seem like an individual cost today, can quickly become a long-term benefit for everyone.  Spread the word and start today!

Note: Kennecott sponsored this post and provided stacks of useful information.  I also studied the other resources listed above for this post, which reflects my own opinion.


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Comments (5)

  1. Matthew 02/19/2013 at 7:07 pm

    I was curious why you were using data supplied by Kennecot, that infographic was designed to mislead people into believing that the Bingham Canyon mine and smelter have less effect on the Utah valley air quality.

  2. Amy 02/19/2013 at 7:32 pm

    Hi Matthew, is your question whether or not Kennecott has an impact on Utah Valley or Salt Lake Valley air? Kennecott is in the Salt Lake Air Shed (as defined by EPA) not Utah County’s air shed. Happy to dig further for your answer if I can understand the question better. Thanks!

  3. Robin Schuyler 02/22/2013 at 3:50 pm

    HI I am considering a move to the area Pleas can you inform any place out of inversion within a 30/40 minute drive to Murray and a drive to Judge Memorial High?

    Our son has asthma.



    • Amy Allen Johnson 02/28/2013 at 4:45 pm

      Hi Robin,
      You’ll notice that higher elevations tend to be above the inversion, which points to living in a place like Park City or up a canyon like Emigration. Still a cost/benefit trade off – your real estate $ doesn’t stretch as far in those areas. Daybreak is in the SW corner of the valley and is very commuter friendly, so light rail would get you straight to Murray and even to 13th S@ State with a transfer on the University line to get to Judge. Hope this helps and good luck with the move!

    • Julie R. 02/28/2013 at 10:34 pm


      The only places that are “close” to the Salt Lake Valley but not in the valley and affected by our inversions would be Park City and the Tooele areas. These are not always 30-40 minutes drives though. Hope this helps!