It’s that time of year again in Utah. The weather has definitely turned and the air has become tasty and thick. Pictures on Instagram of hikers rising above the inversion in the Wasatch Front have clogged my feed in the last week. Per the usual seasonal uproar, all of the locals will complain about the taste and the smell, and worry about our neighbors with asthma. No doubt the usual air-polluting suspects will be trotted out and lined up for public flogging: Rio Tinto, the refineries in Bountiful and Woods Cross, and other incinerating businesses like Stericycle. The outrage about the air will prompt our local politicians to ban things like burning wood in fireplaces or stoves, in the name of clean air. But who are the real culprits? Leaving out the geologic reasons for our seasonal inversion and subsequent polluted air, what causes all of the nastiness we breathe? Who can we point the finger at when we give up on our New Year’s resolution to take up running because of the air quality warnings in January?
If you believe the local news stories and the hubbub on the streets, it’s a given that we have big businesses polluting the air, raking in tremendous profits, and doing nothing to prevent the air problems we face.
For years I’ve suspected that this line of reasoning was hollow, but I never took the time to research or offer any evidence of my argument, until today. You see, I’m a friend to business. I’ve owned businesses of my own, I’ve been partners in local businesses, and I see free markets and business creation and operation as a means to the peaceful advancement of the human condition. It still amazes me that so many people doing so many different things can act in concert to produce so many varieties and quantities of goods freely available at affordable prices. There is no other system that can create what a free market can create.
So… you get my background.
While I had suspected that the accepted story around our air pollution might be bunk, I was also open to the idea that maybe the refineries ARE the real source of most of the pollution we’re breathing. Maybe Rio Tinto IS the problem.
Let’s tackle the obvious polluters first. There can be no doubt that the refineries and Rio Tinto are polluters, the question is only how much do they actually pollute in their normal business routine.
According to a report on refineries by the Environmental Integrity Project, a group who advocates “…taking legal actions against big polluters…”, the five refineries we have in Utah are serious polluters. From the Appendix of the report, they rank the 2004 emissions from these refineries as:
Big West Oil Co-North Salt lake which releases 5,278 pounds of pollution in to the air annually.
Chevron USA Inc-Salt Lake City which releases 15,054 pounds of pollution in to the air annually.
Holly Corp Refining & Marketing-Woods Cross which releases 8,591 pounds of pollution in to the air annually.
Silver Eagle Refining-Woods Cross which releases 4,754 pounds of pollution in to the air annually.
Tesoro West Coast-Salt Lake City which releases 5,075 pounds of pollution in to the air annually.
Taken together, the refineries released 38,752 pounds of pollution in to the air in Utah in 2004. That’s over 19 tons of pollution in one year. Yes, the data is 12 years old, but still, that’s likely to have not changed much over time. If anything, the pollution has probably increased.
But what about Rio Tinto? That smelter out near West Valley certainly must contribute to the haze. Unfortunately, my initial research didn’t provide any kind of data around Rio Tinto’s actual air pollution contribution. There are disputed percentages, but no actual data that I could easily find around how much pollution gets in the air from their operations. If one unattributed Salt Lake Tribune story is to be believed, Rio Tinto emits 10x the Chevron refinery. That would be 150,000 pounds per year, or 75 tons. Let’s go with that number, just for fun. It’s a huge number. Rio Tinto is clearly part of the air pollution problem.
Another company you may have heard about in the news is Stericycle, which incinerates medical waste products. Their permits allow them 1.94 tons of particulate matter and 2.08 tons of other air pollutants, essentially granting them permission to add 4 tons of pollution to the air. It’s not as much as the oil refineries, but you have to admit, its still a lot of pollution.
We could continue down the list of industrial polluters, but let’s leave that be for a moment to examine what my gut has been telling me for years: that cars contribute more, by far, to air pollution, than any other source.
According to UDOT, 147,375 cars pass the intersection of SR 68 and 500 South in Bountiful, every day. In a report by the EPA, they suggest the typical passenger car releases 4.7 tons of emissions per year, not including other emissions like nitrous oxide. If each car produces 25 lbs of emissions per day (4.7 tons x 2000 pounds per ton / 365 days = 25.75 pounds per day), then in the 5th South area alone, we have 3,794,906 pounds of vehicular air pollution PER DAY. That’s 1,897 tons of pollution per day coming from vehicles passing that area. Put in to perspective, that’s 692,570 TONS of pollution coming from cars passing 5th South in Bountiful on a yearly basis.
Compared to air pollution from cars, all of the refineries, Rio Tinto, plus Stericycle amount to less than 1 one thousandth of 1% of vehicular emissions, just in the 5th South in Bountiful area (19 tons from refineries + 75 tons from Rio Tinto + 4 from Stericycle = 98 tons per year / 692,570 tons by vehicles = .0001415%). If we add in the more than 1.5 million registered cars in Utah, It’s easy to point the finger at Utah’s biggest contributor to air pollution: it’s your car.
I realize that this approach to measuring pollution isn’t entirely scientific. I’m pulling from different sources which may or not be accurate. This isn’t meant to be an end to the discussion. It’s meant to be a begin a new discussion, one that targets the place where we can make the biggest difference in our air quality instead of chasing after shadows while not actually doing anything to change our air quality.
Meanwhile, all of the popular rhetoric attacks business, our governor talks about mandatory no burn days (which disproportionately affect those who are trying to save some money by not paying for electric or natural gas heat, with no real net benefit to air quality), and we continue to misplace blame for our air quality without examining the real culprits: our cars.
Edit: At the request of one of my Facebook friends, I have included a pie chart below demonstrating the amount of pollution that comes from vehicles vs the big industrial polluters. See that tiny line? The one that you can barely see? That’s the amount coming from industrial polluters.