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Cleaning up Cache Valley’s air: ‘You’ve got to start somewhere’

March 8th, 2013 Posted in Opinion

By Paul Christiansen

LOGAN— A bill before the Utah Legislature sponsored by state Rep. Ed Redd, R-Logan, to implement vehicle emissions testing in Cache Valley recently drew a crowd of supporters to a public hearing at the Cache County Council. Rallying against the valley’s air quality problem, members of the multitude carried protest signs and wore surgical masks.

But some feel those who rallied don’t represent people who can make a difference.

“Unfortunately that’s not a representative sample of the people who vote here in Cache Valley,” said Jean Lown, a professor at Utah State University and a concerned valley resident. “People in that room were the people that care, are educated and are knowledgeable; unfortunately they’re not the vast majority of voters.”

Lown doesn’t drive but rather walks or rides a bicycle to her job at the Logan campus where she teaches. She said she sees automobiles pouring out dirty exhaust and visible emissions into the air every day, and she is fed up.

“I’ve been going to these various meetings and I have heard Lynn Lemon, the county executive, say so many times that vehicle emissions testing is not going to solve the problem,” Lown said. “But let’s at least start attacking the problem. Even if it’s only going to improve our air quality 5 percent, let’s do it. You’ve got to start somewhere.”

It comes down to being educated and knowing the facts, Lown said. She admitted—like many Utahns—she didn’t realize multiple compounds make up vehicle emissions. She said the information Randy Martin shared with her is something most people probably don’t think about.

“As you can imagine, vehicle emissions are a mixture of things,” said Martin, a research associate professor in the USU College of Engineering. “A lot of it depends on the type of engine it is and how that particular engine is operating.”

>> What’s in that stuff we’re breathing?

Most people are unaware of what is checked when an automobile undergoes emissions testing, Martin said. Four compounds are checked for: carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds—known as VOCs—and oxides of nitrogen, or NOx.

Of the four emission compounds, he said VOCs and NOx are of primary concern.

“The reason we’re interested in those is because they will both go on and react in the atmosphere,” Martin said. “The VOCs primarily contribute to ozone photochemistry. The ozone photochemistry—along with a few other things—reacts with the nitric oxide omitted from the tailpipe of the car, forming NO2. From there nitric acid forms and combines with the ammonia in the atmosphere to form PM2.5.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PM2.5—particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers—passes through the nose and throat and across the lungs into the cardiovascular system, posing a great health risk. Particles can aggravate heart diseases such as coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure.

“We know from measurements we’ve done that we’re ammonia-rich in the valley but attacking the ammonia isn’t going to do us any good,” Martin said. “We’d have to remove at least 50 percent of the ammonia before we’d even start to see a change in the PM2.5. It’s just impractical.”

In order for any change to go into effect, the percentages and sources of VOCs and NOx have to be known first.

>> Where is the toxic air coming from?

“NOx comes primarily from combustion sources which we can identify,” Martin said. “The VOCs come not only from combustion but also from area sources—gas stations, dry cleaners, printing shops, bakeries, restaurants, auto body paint shops. There are lots of places for VOCs to come from. We need to identify all those and find out what mix of VOCs that is.”

Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality conducts these tests. From the results for Cache Valley, VOCs and the NOx are approximately equal in their importance in atmospheric chemistry, Martin said.

“Sometimes if you pick the wrong one of those—say you reduce NOx but you don’t reduce the VOCs—it could actually increase our PM2.5,” Martin said. “The chemistry is non-linear and slight changes can force things one way or the other. A lot of people think any reduction will help, but not necessarily; it might make it worse.”

But Cache Valley might not be as far from cleaner air and healthier conditions as some people think. Utah’s Division of Air Quality, through studies and EPA-approved models, has set a goal to get Cache Valley below the federal standard for PM2.5—35 micrograms per cubic meter.

“Modeling has suggested to the DAQ that from a regulatory standpoint we don’t have to do a whole lot in order to get below the standard, even though this was an especially bad winter,” Martin said. “Our design value is about 30 micrograms per cubic meter and is a three-year average of our eighth highest value of PM2.5 for each of those three years.”

The average of 30 micrograms per cubic meter is the target value, Martin said. Any emissions scenarios in the models have to result in an outcome below 35 micrograms per cubic meter. In order for this to occur, certain controls will have to be put on primary producers of VOCs.

“That was the DAQ’s goal—not to get completely clean air but to get us below 35,” Martin said. “They looked at the models, they looked at our emissions sources here and they identified area sources. The other main source of emissions in the valley besides these area sources are automobiles.”

Using EPA guidelines and scenarios that would get Cache Valley’s PM2.5 problem below the national standard, the DAQ’s models show the proposed vehicle emissions inspection program is estimated to reduce total vehicle emissions—a combination of VOCs and NOx— in Cache Valley by .46 tons per day, roughly one-third of the total reduction needed to get below the federal standard.

“Two-thirds of these emissions come from area sources—basically businesses—so we as individual consumers are going to be directly responsible for that one-third,” Martin said. “A lot of times you’ll hear people say that an inspection maintenance program is really going to only get us a 3 to 5 percent reduction in PM2.5. They think it’s insignificant but when we only need to get a 10 percent reduction in PM2.5, that 3 to 5 percent suddenly becomes very significant.”

>> Public must insist on changes from industrial polluters

Niles Urry, producer and director of the EnviroNews documentary Breathless in Zion , said industrial pollution can only be dealt with properly if the public educates itself, organizes and calls for change.

“If the hand is not forced, these industrial companies aren’t going to do it,” Urry said. “These companies have to be held to a higher standard. The solution isn’t to shut down every source polluter, but we need to make them accountable so they clean up their act in a big way.”

Martin believes the inspection proposal in Redd’s bill is needed in the valley but says it’s a “very minimal” program. In the Cache Valley emissions program, vehicles less than six years old will be exempt from testing. All other programs implemented throughout Utah exempt only vehicles newer than four years old.

“This was, in my opinion, a little bit of the county’s battling to say, ‘We stood up against the big, bad federal government and we got you six years instead of four,’” Martin said.

“The most difficult part is vehicles and public traffic,” Urry said. “It’s definitely an issue and I think we need to get much more aggressive from the top down.”

Urry said green technologies such as zero-emission vehicles are resources government representatives should be looking at closely in order to resolve the air problem.

But government representatives and officials, Lown said, toe a fine line between doing what the law says, doing what they think is right and keeping their job. She said Cache County representatives aren’t always held accountable to their constituents and are “re-elected by dissing the federal government.”

In August the Cache County Council voted 5-2 against adopting an emissions test program. Lown believes the current bill wouldn’t even be up for discussion if the EPA wasn’t mandating the program.

“Ed Redd is pushing this bill through to allow a much more lenient emissions testing program here,” Lown said. “This is self-fulfilling prophecy. In three or five years Lynn Lemon can say, ‘Oh, I told you so. It really hasn’t made any difference.’ But it’ll be because they made it so lax.”

>> How do we fix our bad air?

Urry said the air quality problem caused by humans can be fixed but only with effort. The first step is aligning with EPA and state standards.

With spring approaching, Cache Valley’s winter air quality problem will clear for another year. If future change is to be made, Martin said, it’s vital the problem stays fresh in people’s minds.

“Although we can’t predict the future, there’s some tantalizing climatology that suggests next year may be a bad year as well, in which case these things will stay on people’s minds,” Martin said. “From a citizen standpoint, it’s kind of nice that there are some of these groups forming that are so concerned with air quality. Previous to that, a lot of what you’d hear at Cache County Council meetings was a lot of people not willing to own up that we do indeed have a problem. They didn’t seem to think that they have personal responsibility to try to solve this.”

Urry agreed activism is playing a major part in the battle to improve air quality in Utah. He said social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter help to disseminate and spread news to the public “like wildfire.”

“This is one of those situations where you have to let knowledge rule,” Martin said. “Health study after health study shows this PM2.5 isn’t good for you. These short exposures we have for two months of the year still affect your life. It doesn’t matter that it’s only during the winter.”


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