1.29.2005

Cleaner skies ahead?

The Herald Journal - 11.7.04
Part 2 of a 3 part series

It was a significant meeting for the Logan Municipal Council on Jan. 7. Three members made legislative debuts in Council Chambers; important issues like garbage fees, fiber-optic communications and a redevelopment project were on the agenda; and a large crowd showed up on a cold winter night.

During discussion of a wind power purchase, Mayor Doug Thompson interrupted with an announcement -- perhaps ironic considering the "clean" source of energy being discussed, perhaps prophetic considering the reverberations the warning would have over the next two months.

"We'll very likely be at the yellow burn limit by tomorrow morning," Thompson told the council, referring to his recent check of the Bear River Health Department's wood-burning advisory, which is based on particulate air pollution levels.

The next day, Thompson was proven correct, as the level of PM 2.5 -- or particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in size -- surpassed 42 in Logan, prompting a yellow burn advisory.

The caution light didn't last long, though, as pollution levels were in the red by the end of the week. Measurements continued to climb, and PM 2.5 levels exceeded 130 micrograms per cubic meter at one point as a layer of gray smog settled over Cache Valley for the next few weeks.

"By the time we got into yellow, it was too late," Thompson said during an interview in his office last week.

It was too late to stop the red burn classification, a public relations "black eye," increasingly hazy skies and the threat of "nonattainment" status under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's air quality standards.

But a widespread community reaction was just beginning.

Street department workers and police officers curtailed driving, fast food restaurants like McDonald's closed drive-thru lanes, and teachers kept students indoors during recess. High school students barricaded parking lots to encourage carpooling, local mechanics tested vehicle emissions for free, and bus ridership in the Logan Transit District reached 5,000 passengers a week for three weeks.

"People were trying," Thompson said of the response. "The thing is, they have to start thinking about what they'll do during these inversions now."

And many are.

"Green Thursdays" are planned at Logan High School; the Logan City Police Department's "Smoking Vehicles" citation program has been expanded; and Sunday carpooling efforts are planned at local churches.

Meanwhile, the Bear River Board of Health has considered lowering the pollution level at which "yellow" or "red" warnings are triggered to start burn restrictions before PM 2.5 gets out of hand. And local forecasters have prepared programs to predict winter inversions and warn the community when severe pollution episodes may be on the way.

One of the most widely talked about pollution-control measures -- a mandatory vehicle emissions inspection and maintenance program -- isn't likely for now. A recently formed task force made up of elected officials and Health Department staff is considering a similar, non-mandatory program, but it's also months away, meaning education is the best bet for reducing emissions this winter.

"Everybody who drives a car, truck or other type of vehicle is part of the problem," said Grant Koford, an environmental health scientist at the Health Department. "We all have to be part of the solution. That's a mindset we all need to understand."

Rather than requiring all vehicle owners to pay for emissions tests and potentially associated repairs, a "Green Sticker Program" has been discussed and could be in place by next fall. The program would require permits -- most likely green window stickers -- for people to drive vehicles on yellow and red burn days. The stickers would be granted based on emissions tests, and the goal would be to keep vehicles that produce large amounts of pollution off the road when air quality declines.

"There would be a particular population in our community that would feel the brunt of mandatory (emissions testing)," said Cache County Executive Lynn Lemon, who's also a member of the Board of Health.

Lemon said requiring emissions tests would burden lower-income families more likely to drive older, nonconforming cars that need pricey repairs. He said the committee has discussed providing waivers to families that can't afford to pay for repairs if they have no other transportation option during red burn days, such as residents outside of LTD or Cache Valley Transit District range.

But results from another study show that the simplest solution is for people to just drive less. Although it has been proven that heavy-duty diesels and poorly maintained vehicles produce more pollution than those that run on unleaded gas, Koford said a recent vehicle-count study showed the majority on the road don't fall into the former category. He said that 90 percent of vehicle emissions are produced by gasoline engines, and thus even those that would pass emissions tests need to be part of the solution.

"If people can cut driving in half during inversion times, that would be better than an emissions program," said Koford. "We're educating the public on reducing the miles they travel during an inversion."

While it isn't easy to get people to change their driving habits, Koford and others agree, Logan city, Cache County and local businesses are encouraging employees to carpool or take the bus to and from work.

"Our goal is to encourage people to take the bus once a week," said Todd Beutler, operations manager for the LTD, adding that average bus ridership takes at least 35 cars off the road each hour. "If everybody would ride once a week, that would make a difference."

The Logan City Police Department said more than 200 vehicles have been cited under "Smoking Vehicle" guidelines since January 2003 for producing visible emissions. Owners are given "fix-it tickets" requiring them to get their exhaust systems repaired. The success of the program, in which officers are trained on what types of smoke contain pollutants, has convinced the Cache County Sheriff's Office to consider joining.

Campaigns are planned at elementary schools, and fourth-grade students will now learn about air pollution in conjunction with a unit on recycling. Participation in Logan High School's Logan Environmental Action Force (LEAF) spiked this fall. The organization has a public relations campaign scheduled, and it will close the school's parking lot on certain days to students who don't carpool. It also recently conducted a survey to find out what pollution-reduction measures student drivers would favor.

"For high school students, pollution and environment issues aren't a big deal," said Michelle Kang, a 17-year-old Logan High senior and LEAF member. "They're going to be careless about it, and we're trying to make them aware of things they can do."

The grassroots Quality Utah Air Commission that was formed by local residents last winter has continued to meet and brainstorm ways citizens can protect air quality through behavioral changes and education. Others are promoting hybrid cars or alternative fuel sources like natural gas that produce fewer emissions. And research is planned to pinpoint more accurately what causes PM 2.5 locally and identify more specifically which cars and trucks are in need of emissions repairs.

Perhaps most importantly, though, discussion and cooperation have been generated among friends and neighbors who call Cache Valley home.

"Public health is public health," said Koford. "We're all involved."