Monday, November 18, 2013

Air Quality: We Can Do Better

With fresh snow on the ground and clear skies currently over the Salt Lake Valley, you might not be thinking much about air quality today, but there is something that has been nagging at me since last week.  Perhaps the photo below will jog your memory.

Smog over the Salt Lake Valley @ 7:20 AM on Wednesday 13 November 2013
As far as Salt Lake air pollution events go, last week's wasn't a biggie, primarily because the inversion wasn't intense (lack of snow cover) or prolonged.  Nevertheless, PM2.5 concentrations climbed throughout the week, with hourly averages peaking at 34 ug/m3 on the 13th and 24-hour averages peaking at 25 ug/m3 early in the morning on the 14th.  The National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) is a 24-hour average of 35 ug/m3.  Although we did not reach this level, PM2.5 concentrations remained near or above 30 ug/m3 for much of the day on the 13th.  

Source: Utah Division of Air Quality
Nevertheless, during the entire event we remained in the "unrestricted" category for air quality action.  If you watched the news, you probably heard that you were good to go for using wood-burning stoves and fire places.  I don't know about you, but I noticed the smell of smoke on at least a couple of occasions last week.  

At issue is this: why not at least encourage the voluntary decision to not use wood and coal-burning stoves and fireplaces and take mass transit even during these moderate air quality events?  I don't see this as a mandate, but simply an effort to encourage citizens to consider taking mass transit and avoid wood burning.  What is the harm in that?  

There is no single silver bullet to solve our air quality challenges, but a more proactive system to encourage voluntary actions to reduce emissions would help.  


  1. Great point- the time to make warnings/encourage mass transit, etc. is at the onset of any prolonged ridge in the winter season. Lessen the pollution as the lid 'starts' to cover the valley- not after the lid has been in place for a week.- Weyman

  2. Jim,

    While wood/coal burning is not a huge part of our AQ problem is can be significant. My position is that there should be a rule that restricts burning to only the months of March-October. Why are we monkeying around with trying to predict and call voluntary and mandatory no wood burning days when this is one form of emissions that is purely a "luxury"? The State needs every bit of emissions reduction that they can get their hands on yet this one is not being fully captured and it is likely the easiest one even if it contributes only a small amount. Some will argue for allowing homes that have only wood/coal stoves for heat to burn anytime, but this is the year 2014/2015. It's long past the time when these unique situations should have been phased out whether through change out programs or out of pocket. Lets face it, we are not pioneering the Valley any longer, we need to adapt to the fact that we all live in an urban Wasatch Front. No longer are we sole survivalists out there. I could go on if you couldnt tell ....

    I'd like to learn what the new requirements are for all of the restaurants that grill. Who will be required to install what and by when? I'm not quite sure what made it into the final plan. Ever been at a stop light by a Crown Burger? Think about all of those and similar ones going 12 hours a day every day. Again, easy fruit made complicated by politics.

  3. By the way, I love a fire. I'd love an outdoor wood grilled pizza, an outdoor patio fire, an indoor wood stove, an indoor fire place. I love chopping wood, stacking wood. Love it. So I get it, but I live here in SLC and I understand that and it is a decision and compromise that I make. It is exactly the same as not swimming and no dogs in the Canyons.

  4. Agreed. Additionally, moving from macro to micro, I enjoy the whiff of wood smoke now and then but my wife experiences it as an allergen. Trying to figure out the non-confrontational way to communicate this to my immediate neighbors. They take great satisfaction out of using their wood burning stove as often as they can as their primary heater.
    There is a strange dichotomy that I see in them as well as another pair or friends that would consider themselves "rabidly green" yet consider a wood burning stove in SLC as part of that identity.

  5. Very interesting SteveJ. I wonder how representative that is of the Front? From an emissions control standpoint, it goes back to the fact that so many of the control ideas cost people money in that they would have to buy new equipment but this one simply means you use your inexpensive natural gas furnace instead of your wood burner. I really dont see it as being overly progressive nor oppressive and it seems like a no brainer to me especially given the situation that we are in. While the State may have found a way to slide the PM2.5 SIP through there is no real solution there and the problem remains and we will surely face the issue of non-compliance again.

  6. Jim and Tyler - you wonder why the Action Level was "Unrestricted" as the inversion was building? Perhaps, it was because the rule says that "When the ambient concentration of PM2.5 ... are forecasted to reach or exceed 25 micrograms per cubic meters...," then the state calls a no-burn period. This is a preemptive way to be sure the standard (35 ug/m3) is not exceeded. Perhaps the meteorologists at DAQ did not believe we would exceed that standard, and by the time they monitored above the 25 ug/m3 level, the front was well on its way? Perhaps those meteorologists are really good at what they do. I recall last winter when the health level was green or just turned yellow, but they called a no-burn period because the inversion was already setting in. You just don't know, do you?

    1. My comments are not a criticism of the DAQ meteorologists. They operate in an imperfect system with bureaucratic constraints. It is my view that this system is not proactive enough (this view is not based on trying to avoid NAAQS violations but a desire to see improved air quality in a wide range of elevated pollution events) and that we would all benefit from a system that encourages voluntary emissions reductions during most quiescent periods. Of course, being a realistic pessimist, I admit that such a system might have little impact.