On Saturday the 25th, the largest demonstration even for clean air in Utah drew thousands to the steps of the Salt Lake City Capital Building in protest. The quality of the city’s air is among the worst in the nation and the health effects are on the rise among the general population.
It was estimated that over four thousand were in attendance at the gathering that had been organized by people from across a political and vocational spectrum. Families with children and pets were in attendance alongside young adults together in groups. Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker was present, as were Senator Jim Dabakis (D-Salt Lake City) and Representative Patrice Arent (D-Salt Lake City).
Chris Moench of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, spoke to the amassed demonstrators from the podium.
“The most fundamental right there is the right to breathe clean air,” he said. “Air pollution tarnishes out community reputation, it erodes our quality of life and stifles our economy as much as it does our lungs.”
According to a Salt Lake Tribune poll, 57 percent of Utahns are “more concerned about air quality than they were five years ago and by a 3-1 margin favoring tougher emission standards.”
Cherise Udell of Moms for Clean Air, read a list of demands at the protest that included the expansion of affordable public transit, a ten-year “moratorium” on new freeway construction, limiting industrial expansion and increased regulation for power plants, refineries and mines.
“Just like you don’t write checks on a bank account that’s overdrawn, you don’t issue permits in a state where we’re out of compliance with federal air standards,” she stated.
While unclean air is a non-partisan issue that affects everyone who breathes, what to do to solve the problem is politically controversial. Though industry controls and more demanding emissions regulation are very popular among the Salt Lake population, industry officials and state regulators alike report that only nine to eleven percent of the air pollution along the Wasatch Front can be attributed to industry. The vast majority of air pollution has been caused by vehicle emissions and high traffic volumes.
However, despite the popular public support for government intervention on the issue of cleaner air, Utahns are not in full support of higher taxation for the purpose of subsidizing initiatives.
A SurveyUSA poll has shown that 63 percent of Utahns oppose higher gasoline taxes to fund highways, while 47 percent favor raising sales tax to fund-mass transit.
The Utah Transit Authority (UTA) is currently drafting a bill to raise the cap on sales tax for mass transit “to offer more routes and more frequent running of buses” and trains in high inversion months. The hike would raise taxes from 0.6 cents on the dollar to a full penny.
Whether through a combination of emissions regulation or reduction in the use of vehicular transportation, the funding and the initiative for change will have to materialize from somewhere.