Last Wednesday, about 200 people gathered on the steps of the Utah State Capitol as part of a Clean Air Rally, uniting their voices to demand strong and immediate legislative action from Governor Herbert on local air pollution. Though the rally brought together many active organizations — friends of Peaceful Uprising such as Utah Tar Sands Resistance, HEAL Utah, Utah Moms for Clean Air, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment — the call to action came from two unaffiliated concerned citizens. A local writer, Marjorie McCloy, who started a petition that has already gathered over 8,400 signatures (SIGN HERE) and a Environmental & Sustainability university student, whose original intention for a massive call-in to the Governor’s office quickly assembled over 1500 people via a Facebook event.
Air quality in Salt Lake City has gotten so bad over the last few months, that in January the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranked the city known for its “clear skies and snow-capped mountains” having the WORST air quality in the NATION. In response, the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment delivered a letter (with over 100 doctor signatures), calling on state leaders to take action in what they called a “state of public emergency.” The Utah Governor’s Office response was: “”While the current air quality does not meet legal criteria to declare an official public health emergency, we should all be actively doing our part to minimize emissions.”
State leaders have repeatedly asked residents to do their part, yet they allow Rio Tinto Kennecott’s Bingham mining operations to continue. The Bingham mine is ranked second in the entire nation for toxic releases (full article here), contributing close to a 1/3 of all pollution in the valley. Utah State “leaders” also turn a blind eye to refineries such as Tesoro “pumping and dumping” toxic pollutants on RED AIR days, after the regular 5pm closing of the EPA’s doors, causing PM 2.5 spikes that are over THREE TIMES what is considered to be hazardous to our health. (For those unfamiliar with the nomenclature, according to airnow.gov, a red air day is when: “Everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.” Thus far this winter, there have already been 22 red air days. More info here.)
As one reporter from EnviroNews asks, [quote style=”1″]So if we are all asked to slow down and change our habits when pollutants are being dangerously trapped in our air shed by uncontrollable temperature inversions, why shouldn’t these corporate “citizens” be asked to do the same?[/quote] (Full article here)
Wednesday’s rally was meant to culminate in a previously scheduled meeting with the Governor’s Environmental Adviser, Alan Matheson, in an effort to hand-deliver the petition signatures and dozens of letters collected demanding legislative action to deal with our catastrophic air quality. When we showed up, Matheson not only refused to see us, but also publicly denied ever having set up said meeting. Which, according to McCloy – who set up the appointment – is clearly untrue. Furthermore, Matheson recently stated: “If they can come forward with ideas, we’ll welcome them. Everything is on the table.”
So we stayed. Hoping for an opportunity to share our ideas. Since no public official agreed to come out and greet us, our rally soon turned into an impromptu occupation of the Governor’s office. Dozens of us sat in the lobby for several hours, singing songs and turning the floor over to a class of 4th graders. As these children very eloquently and passionately expressed, the grown-ups in charge should take some action to allow the 4th graders to “go outside and enjoy their lives” rather than be confined to staying indoors during recess on red air days. (Thanks for the video, Steve Liptay.)
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There are some glimmers of hope in the legislature. Like when Republican legislator, Kraig Powell, after introducing the first bill to recognize the science of climate change in the Utah State Government says,
[quote style=”1″]“This issue will not go away – The only question is what are we going to do about it? I have now come to realize that (climate change) is not a Democratic issue; it’s a Republican one. Refusing to acknowledge openly that this is a problem provides an impediment that I don’t think should be there.”[/quote]
Activists from iMatter Utah and Interfaith Power & Light inspired Powell to introduce HB77 — and though it did not pass in the committee (11-4 vote), it’s clear that even some of our conservative legislators are beginning to connect the dots. The Utah House Democratic Caucus also announced last week that there would be six air quality bills proposed during this 2013 legislative session.
Since bills are no guarantee for swift political change, we’ll be back! Time and time again, until the State Legislature takes this issue seriously. Sure, as individuals, we can minimize our own carbon footprint (by burning less gas to heat our homes, by taking public transit and driving less) — but when over 1/3 of the pollution in the valley can be attributed to industry and when our Governor refuses to holds corporate polluters accountable or offer a viable plan to move forward, we won’t stop there.
We will also do our part by STAYING ENGAGED and TAKING a STAND.
So join your community at the State Capitol: along with our friends from Utah Tar Sands Resistance on Feb 13th for a Coff-In, and our friends from Before It Starts on Feb 21st for a Round Dance Flash Mob, as we continue to connect the dots between tar sands mining, refinery expansions and hazardous air quality in our valley.