Physician Activist Helps Turn Tide Against Coal in Utah
In the winter of 2006-07, a prolonged temperature inversion in the Salt Lake Valley trapped cold air—and particulate matter—low to the ground, causing dense smog to blanket the area for nearly a month.
"Air pollution gets intense under these circumstances," says Dr. Brian Moench, an anesthesiologist at Latter Day Saints Hospital in Salt Lake City. "I was distressed that there wasn't any dialog or statements from politicians about how to mitigate this or even acknowledge the public health issues involved."
Moench penned an op-ed to the Salt Lake Tribune about the consequences of air pollution and his dismay over politicians' inaction. The piece caught the eye of Sierra Club organizer Tim Wagner, who invited Moench to join the campaign to stop construction of new coal-fired power plants in the Beehive State.
The result was the formation of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. As UPHE President, Moench is the group's point person with the media and state agencies, giving frequent testimony and presentations at public hearings. More than 30 of his op-ed pieces have been published in Salt Lake City's two main newspapers, and he speaks about pollution at public venues around the state several times a month.
"I end up on the news or the editorial pages often enough that many state agencies and right-wing legislators hate me," he says. "But from the outset I calculated that we would not get very far playing nice with an environmentally blind state government. We decided our biggest potential ally would be the public, so our strategy has been to share the medical research with them wherever possible and hope grassroots pressure eventually forces change."
The result has been a dramatic shift in public attitude and the outlook for new coal plants in Utah: of the four new coal plants proposed in the state when UPHE formed, three have been shelved, and the fourth appears all but dead.
"We've possibly provided a tipping point, especially in a 'red state' like Utah, because we've provided the connection between personal and family health and pollution exposure," Moench says. "Our emphasis on the threat air pollution poses to children and the human embryo strikes a chord even with hard core conservatives."
UPHE took shape in early 2007 after Moench conferred with the Sierra Club's Wagner and began talking to medical colleagues who shared his concerns about air pollution. "We developed a nucleus of seven or eight physicians," he says. "After putting in two months of intense study on the health consequences, we were much more concerned than when we started out."
They developed a 45-minute presentation for the governor, held a press conference at the Capitol, and "all the newspapers and TV stations showed up." UPHE then convened a public meeting where they invited citizens to help develop strategies for dealing with air pollution along the Wasatch Front.
Soon thereafter, Utah Moms for Clean Air formed, and the two groups now function as sister organizations. "We provide the health expertise and they provide the grassroots outreach," Moench says. "We've been working with them to increase public awareness and help shape the legislative agenda, which is still in the stone age here in Utah."
UPHE's initial goal was to halt construction of any new coal plants in the state. "At the time there were proposals to build 14 new plants in the interior west—four of them in Utah," Moench says. "The urban areas along the Wasatch Front—Salt Lake City, Provo, and Logan—consistently rank in the top 10 in the nation for acute spikes in air pollution. We were alarmed by the prospect of being surrounded by more coal plants and decided it was intolerable to let that happen."
Over the next two-and-a-half years, Moench traveled the state giving testimony at hearings, speaking at public meetings, talking to the media, and making the case against coal. In the process he has become arguably the highest-profile physician in the state working on environmental issues.
"Public awareness of the proposals to build new coal plants was minimal at the time UPHE formed," Moench says. "Most people, including me, didn't have a clue—Tim Wagner made me aware of all these plans. But after becoming aware and understanding what the new coal plants would mean for air quality, I felt there was no choice but to become actively involved.
"From the standpoint of economics, personal health, and the future of the planet, there's just no way we can excuse the development of further coal plants in the west or any other part of the United States—or the world, for that matter. Coal combustion waste contains at least 55 different contaminants that have an adverse impact on the physical or neurological development of children, and probably half of those contaminants are known carcinogens."
UPHE is now urging that the state constitution be amended to divert half the state gasoline tax from highways to mass transit. "The legislature will brush that idea off," Moench says, "but after the difficult winter we've had so far with air pollution, the media have approached us to help publicize the idea."
Some people, he concedes, "like bloggers on newspaper and TV websites, have responded by attacking the messenger, calling us liars and charlatans," Moench says. "But overall I think community attitudes are shifting in our favor. The perception of the need for coal plants, and their acceptability, has undergone a major shift paralleling public awareness of climate change.
"Utah's coal resources will be gone in about 20 years," Moench says, "and our energy future will have to rely on solar and geothermal because we don't have significant wind resources. We'll also need to embrace decentralized power, just as we must start developing decentralized agriculture. I think addressing climate change is the greatest moral imperative our country has ever faced."
Learn more about what the Sierra Club is doing to move America beyond coal.