Every spring the American Lung Association ranks America's cities for air pollution. Once again Utah's are ranked in the top 10 worst for acute spikes in pollution. Our high ranking is becoming as predictable as death and taxes. Actually, it contributes to death and taxes.
Add to that these ingredients: Salt Lake City's recent ranking by Forbes magazine as the ninth most toxic city in the country with Rio Tinto as the biggest cause, the Great Salt Lake having the worst mercury contamination of any body of water in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency declaring Salt Lake County in violation of the national air quality standards and officially designating the state plan to achieve compliance as inadequate, and the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce acknowledging our air pollution to be a serious economic barrier. Stir it all up and you would conclude that we live in a bowl of pollution with little being done about it.
And you would be right.
Given these facts you might expect that at least the state has enough of a regulatory spine and concern for public health that when our state's biggest polluter comes knocking at the door to increase their pollution 32 percent, the state agency mandated to protect us would turn them down. You would be wrong.
Last week the Utah Air Quality Board (AQB), accepted the recommendation of the Division of Air Quality (DAQ) and approved a Rio Tinto 32 percent mining expansion, which will increase Salt Lake County air pollution 12-14 percent.
But Rio Tinto, working diligently with DAQ staff, has pulled off a bona fide miracle. Its computers say no air quality standards will be violated even though they're already being violated. Go figure.
An independent air quality scientist who specializes in this work, understands the computer models and emissions calculations, looked at the documents and had this to say: "How can an open-pit mine increase operations by 32 percent while at the same time reduce its PM10 emissions over 48 percent, using no additional air pollution controls? Plainly, the record does not support such a claim."
If Rio Tinto told the DAQ pigs could fly, I don't think they would even question it.
What does this mean for your family?
It certainly means more things in the air obscuring our view of the flying pigs: more PM2.5, more NOx, more carbon monoxide, more lead, more arsenic, more health consequences and expenses for every family.
All federal regulations, including those that the DAQ computer programs say we won't violate, are based on medical data at least a decade old.
Because of bureaucratic lag time and political roadblocks, a huge gap always exists between medical science and the enforced standards.
The EPA's scientific advisory panel has been calling for tighter standards to match the science for several years now.
No question that Rio Tinto is anxious for a new permit before the standards become more strict.
Economists have calculated monetary costs for a community's pollution. Using a variety of relevant studies, we estimate that Rio Tinto's pollution costs Utah at least $2 billion to $4 billion a year, several times more than the value of the jobs they provide and taxes they pay. In fact, by emitting far more pollution per job than any other business, and curtailing opportunities for other businesses that pollute less, Rio Tinto's permit to expand acts like a British tax that we all pay to their London headquarters, much like the backdrop to the original Boston Tea Party.
If you have loved ones struggling with chronic diseases like heart disease, asthma, diabetes, autism, Alzheimer's or cancer, all of which can be caused or exacerbated by the decades of pollution and toxic heavy metals from Rio Tinto, your state agencies just held the coat of an international corporate bully while it prepares to deliver more body blows to the health of you and your family.
To the members of the AQB and the DAQ, let me put a human face on the consequences of your decision: 80-90 percent of cancer is environmentally caused, and this week I learned that another loved one has cancer, the seventh so far in my immediate family of 11, including two of my children.
All of us live or grew up in the "ninth most toxic city in the country," in the shadow of Rio Tinto. We must now hope that the courts are more interested than our state agencies in protecting us and a little more skeptical about whether pigs can fly.
Brian Moench is president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists.