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Utah will welcome 2017 with bad air and broken pollution monitors

Published December 29, 2016 8:15 pm

Inversion brought by chilly weather will stay until a storm blows out stagnant air.
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Utah's first major pollution episode of the season likely will be sticking around to ring in the new year, but equipment failures are already interfering with the state's real-time air quality reports.

As of Thursday, levels of air pollution in Salt Lake County were in the red range — generally unhealthy for all people — while Utah and Davis counties' air quality was unhealthy for sensitive populations.

Pollution data from Weber County was unavailable on account of a malfunctioning monitor, but the air there didn't appear better, according to Donna Spangler, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Quality. Residents of that area should refer to reports from Davis County while the Division of Air Quality works to bring the Ogden monitor back online, she said.

Spangler said the monitor was replaced earlier this week by division staff, but that the new monitor subsequently malfunctioned. She said the monitor should be repaired by next week.

Meanwhile, pollutant levels are expected to continue to climb through the weekend. Calm, chilly weather, coupled with the presence of snow on the ground, has allowed a temperature inversion to develop. That inversion will remain until a storm blows in to churn up the stagnant air — but forecasts don't anticipate stormy weather before the first of the year.

The inversion forecast from the Utah Climate Center at Utah State University also expects the current conditions to hold until about Jan. 1. A second inversion is forecast for later that month.

Until a storm arrives, Spangler said, anything put into the air on the Wasatch Front will remain there. The amount of pollution in the air roughly doubles every day during an inversion.

Pollution released during an inversion is like water in a bathtub, she said. "It keeps filling up, unless you have something to drain it. If people continue to drive and not pay attention, it's just going to get worse."

Burning wood and other solid fuels is currently banned on the Wasatch Front, and emission-producing industries must also modify or cease operations.

That is expected to remain in place over the weekend in all monitored counties except Carbon, Duchesne, Tooele, Uintah, and Washington counties.

Spangler also encouraged Wasatch Front residents to plan ahead and avoid driving this weekend. Those who must drive should consolidate trips and avoid idling their vehicles — driving turns on a car's pollution controls sooner, and it also speeds up how fast it warms up.

And if you have any snow left over from the last storm, Spangler suggests using a shovel, rather than a snow blower.

Air-conscious partygoers might also think twice before setting off fireworks. Fireworks during July's holidays have been known to temporarily push Salt Lake City's air quality into the "purple" or "very unhealthy" range.

Salt Lake City's official New Year's Eve celebration — EVE WinterFest — has dispensed with fireworks in recent years due to air-quality concerns.

"I don't want to be a killjoy," Spangler said, "but if you care about the air, you can hold off on those fireworks."


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