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Utah air quality

Published November 29, 2012 1:01 am

New system is high-maintenance
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A current series of beer commercials affectionately mocks the superstitious behavior of sports fans who try various silly tricks in vain hopes of influencing the fortunes of their favored team. Things like lucky socks, special hand gestures, arranging beer cans in the shape of a team logo, rabbit's feet.

The tagline: "It's only weird if it doesn't work."

The Utah Division of Air Quality is rolling out a new air quality alert system, one that has the potential to be more proactive in reducing the amount of pollution that fouls our skies and our lungs. But because it is more complicated, or just because it is different, independent environmental activists are raising reasonable concerns that all the new system will really do is obscure just how nasty Utah's air is.

If the new system doesn't work, it won't just be weird. It will be hazardous to Utah's — and Utahns' — health.

The green-yellow-red system has been in use in the state for more than a decade. Its most noticeable feature is how it declares red days, days when certain kinds of particulates and other pollution trapped by valley temperature inversions make breathing such a dangerous activity that burning wood and coal are banned, driving is discouraged and those with sensitive respiratory systems are encouraged to stay indoors.

The new system will be broken up, not into the three colors that are familiar to everyone who drives a car or exercises outdoors, but into six categories that run from "good" to "hazardous." State officials say that, in addition to mirroring a federal Environmental Protection Agency design that allows for more state-to-state comparisons, the new system will also require burning bans and other actions at lower levels of pollution. And that, over time, will make the air cleaner.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, are concerned that the end of the easy-to-understand red light will lull residents into a false sense of security about the quality of the air they breathe. And, while business groups such as the Salt Lake Chamber are on board with the innovation, there is also a concern that it is all for show, a hope that businesses looking for new places to operate won't understand the hazards of living and working here because the red light isn't flashing any more.

Utah does have a history of putting undeserved happy faces on some of its statistics, from high school graduation rates to voter turnout.

Whether this new alert system is an improvement or not depends on the job of educating the public that is now before the media, environmentalists and, most of all, the state.




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