During December's persistent inversion that trapped unhealthy levels of air pollution near valley floors, Wasatch Front residents faced fines if they burned leaf piles in their yard or wood in their fireplaces.
But metal recyclers could use torches to cut scrap metal, potentially dispatching dark, acrid smoke without consequence. Such cutting at Sims Metal Management, which is permissible 365 days a year under its state air-quality permit for its Salt Lake City yard, has occurred nonstop during business hours, regardless of the air-quality conditions, according to neighbors.
After numerous neighbor complaints this month, yard managers placed blowers to dissipate the smoke and parked a big truck to block the public's view of the torch operator, who continued cutting.
"The smoke is coming over the fence and we have to breathe it," said George Odell, an engineer with Doppelmayr, the ski lift maker whose headquarters are just east of Sims' scrap pile. "We have outdoor workers. It leaves you at the end of the day feeling sick."
Sims' corporate leadership pledged Friday to time torch cutting at its Utah yard to avoid inversions.
Metal recycling enjoys a good environmental reputation because it enables the reuse of materials that would otherwise end up in landfills. There are roughly a dozen metal recyclers in Utah, most of them along the Wasatch Front, according to state regulators.
Last year, the U.S. scrap industry processed about 50 million tons of iron and steel, valued at $30 billion, and another $50 billion in copper and other nonferrous metals, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade group.
But smoke from torches and major fires is giving the scrap metal industry a black eye. And during the Salt Lake Valley's notorious wintertime inversions, torch smoke can add to the particulate pollution clogging the skies. When air quality deteriorates, state officials implore industry to "optimize operating conditions to minimize air pollution emissions."
Sims now intends to comply.
"We want to do the right thing so our guys will voluntarily not use torches on those days," said Scott Miller, a lawyer based at the firm's U.S. headquarters in New York. He said the Salt Lake City yard may still torch cut if necessary to meet contractual obligations and address safety concerns.
"But that will be the exception," Miller said, "not the rule."
The Australia-based company is the world's largest metal recycler, operating in 23 states at 170 locations in North America, including two in Utah. One is in Orem and the other in Salt Lake City's industrial west end at 3260 W. 500 South.
In recent months, three large fires burned on scrap piles at Sims facilities in Redwood City, Calif., and Jersey City, N.J., creating unsafe breathing conditions for surrounding communities. In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined the Salt Lake City yard $75,000 for discharging ozone-depleting chemicals, the chlorofluorocarbons often found in old appliances.
These missteps aside, Sims has gone to great lengths to burnish its environmental image. Its website claims the firm is among the world's "greenest companies," with an eye toward social responsibility.
"Sims Metal Management maintains the strongest commitment to the environment, sustainability and the health of the communities in which we do business," the site states. "In all aspects of the business, we strive to implement best practices and the ideals of our Safety, Health, Environment and Commitment (SHEC) Policy."
According to Miller, Sims' Salt Lake City yard is not a heavy user of torch cutting, reserving the practice only for pieces too big to run through its shredder. It sometimes uses water spray to knock down smoke rising from burning scrap and is now testing emission-capture equipment, called SPARCS, at one of its Midwestern locations. Michigan-based Torching Solutions makes this gear, basically a portable sturdy box, rigged with fans that suck smoke through filters.
Company owner Jason Roughton, a multi-generation torchman, developed this equipment a few years ago, according to company executive Brian Krasicky. SPARCS costs between $75,000 and $120,000, depending on the size.
"SPARCS is like an insurance policy that lets you work," Krasicky said. "We've had tremendous success with customers winning bids dependent upon officials agreeing with the opacity results."
He predicted that in 36 months, all scrap yard torch cutting will be done in front of capture equipment.
Miller said Sims wants to full test SPARCS before embracing it.
"We have mixed reports regarding its reliability," he said. "If we find it works well, we will use it."
State officials, meanwhile, say they cannot force metal recyclers to make changes. Bans on burning solid fuels during winter inversions don't apply to businesses, but most are subject to strict limits on open burning. Burn permits are not issued during stagnant meteorological conditions, except in emergencies.
Torch cutting, however, is not considered open burning because it is not done to dispose of waste, but to process it for milling, according to Utah Division of Air Quality Director Bryce Bird. Sims' air-quality permit was last amended before Salt Lake Valley was declared out of attainment of federal PM2.5 standards. The agency cannot now retroactively impose tighter emission limits on Sims, considered a "minor source" of air pollution.
"We don't have authority to dictate how a business operates," Bird said.
Sims' permit, amended in 2008 when the facility installed a new shredder, allows it to process up to 322,000 tons of material a year. That kind of volume could yield revenues in excess of $100 million if Sims sells the scrap for $350 a ton, according to industry observers.
The permit caps pollution from the shredder, which is equipped with emission controls. But these limits don't apply to mobile equipment and fugitive emissions, such as those that come from trucks and torch cutting. Sims torch smoke instead is subject to opacity limits. Smoke should not get so dense that it blocks more than 15 percent of the light passing through it, according to Bird.
Special instruments are used to measure opacity, but they can be used only when the sun is at a certain angle. DAQ conducted a routine opacity test at Sims on Nov. 6 and found smoke in compliance. The test takes opacity readings every 15 seconds and averages them over six minutes.
Officials returned Nov. 26 in response to Odell's complaints and found smoke levels exceeding the 15 percent threshold. DAQ put the Sims yard on notice that it could be cited and advised managers to apply fans to the torch smoke to thin it out.
But blowers could exacerbate torch emissions by pushing particles upward that otherwise would fall out, Krasicky said.
Meanwhile, it's hard if not impossible for Odell to know what's in the smoke wafting over his fence.
"Metals are often alloyed with elements such as lead, chromium, nickel, etc. Surface treatments can include zinc, lead paint, etc. They also cut up old process tanks. Who knows what was previously in these tanks?" Odell wrote in an e-mail to the DAQ.
Share the story of your bad air day
I For some Utahns, inversion season is simply annoying. It means fewer outdoor exercise days, eye and throat irritation, and a less-than-picturesque view. For others, though, the cloud of pollution that clings to the valley floor is a serious threat that exacerbates existing health problems and makes Salt Lake City virtually unlivable in the winter months.
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Air-quality town hall
O The Tribune's Jennifer Napier-Pearce will moderate a town-hall discussion on Utah's air quality challenges with a panel of experts at 7 p.m. Jan. 29 at the Salt Lake City Main Library, 210 E. 400 South. The discussion will be broadcast live on KCPW 88.3/105.3 FM and at sltrib.com. You can submit questions in advance by sending an email to email@example.com.