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January 28, 2014

Sierra Club Joins Largest Clean Air Rally in Utah History

.Utah Clean Air, No Excuses Rally
                                                            Photo courtesy of Tim Wagner

Surrounded by beautiful mountain ranges and world-class ski resorts, Salt Lake City isn’t normally associated with polluted air. Unfortunately, because it’s a valley surrounded by high mountain peaks and with an urban population at nearly two million people, Salt Lake City is victim to the “bowl effect,” which results in temperature inversions. This is where the cold temperatures from high air pressure systems settle in the valley and trap air pollution from cars, trucks, and a plethora of big industry polluters.

Nearly all Salt Lake City residents are affected by this poor air quality, but low-income communities, children, and people of color are affected disproportionately.

Try as they might, these communities have come together and been vocal about their dirty air for many years. Sadly, they have received little but lip service from the state’s very conservative public officials and regulators. But when another 20-plus day-long temperature inversion set in over the holidays, Utahns had enough.

Activists came together and made their voice heard--in a big way. The Sierra Club worked with Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE), Utah Moms for Clean Air, and Utah Clean Air Now to organize the largest environmental rally in the history of the state to raise awareness for their vision for Utah: clean air and clean energy access for all communities. The rally featured Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, several state officials, medical professionals, and representatives from numerous community, air-quality, and faith-based groups.

“It’s quite clear to everyone that the biggest source of this nasty pollution is from the burning of fossil fuels,” said Tim Wagner, an organizer with the Sierra Club. “While the largest single source is from tailpipe emissions–roughly 60 percent–we also have in our midst five oil refineries, Kennecott Copper’s

Utah Clean Air, No Excuses Rally
          Photo courtesy of Karrie Higgins

massive open-pit mine, power plants, and numerous other point sources. And many of those, including the refineries, are being permitted by state authorities to expand. It’s crazy, considering we are already out of compliance with Environmental Protection Agency standards.”

Wagner also said that eastern Utah is currently experiencing an oil boom with more and more drilling projects expected to deliver even more dirty crude to the refineries close to downtown Salt Lake City.

“Even if we quadruple ridership on our mass transit systems, the expected increase in dirty tanker truck pollution and refinery pollution will most certainly offset any such gains,” Wagner said.

Media reported more than 4,000 rally attendees.

Dr. Brian Moench, a practicing physician and the president and co-founder of UPHE, the largest civic organization of health care professionals in the state of Utah, was thrilled with the success of the rally.

“Since its inception in 2007, UPHE has become the primary reason why the public's perception of air pollution and fossil fuel development in the state of Utah, the most conservative state in the country, has become remarkably transformed in the last few years,” Dr. Moench said in an email. “The culmination of that transformation was seen yesterday in the largest rally in the modern history of the state of Utah.”

Practicing physicians in Utah like Dr. Moench see patients every day who suffer from the effects of polluted air -- in the form of shortness of breath, asthma attacks, and sometimes even cancer. In fact, nearly eight percent of Utahns have asthma, including 72,000 children.

Children and people with low incomes are disproportionately affected by air pollution and face unique risks. According to the American Lung Association, often low-income communities live closer to the sources of pollution, including near major highways or factories. Sometimes they’re  more likely to have health conditions that put them at higher risk. The Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Program is just one of many groups tackling that injustice.

If we want to protect vulnerable communities from avoidable and costly hospital visits due to poor air quality, we need to let go of our dependence on fossil fuels by working on fuel efficiency and expanding clean energy like wind and solar. A MoveOn.org petition has a goal of 10,000 signatures to hold leaders accountable for the health and quality of life -- help them get to that goal. Thousands of Utahns came together with a vision of a clean energy future -- and across the country, there are millions more that would benefit from this powerful activism.

--Roger Singer, Sierra Club senior organizing manager, Colorado

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