The Air Up There

Logan, Utah, a small city just north of Salt Lake City, doesn't make too many national headlines. But on January 15 it set a dubious record for the worst air quality in the country. The airborne microscopic particles registered higher than a city next to a raging forest fire.

The official record of 180 for PM 2.5 air pollution was subsequently called into question because of measuring differences, but even the revised level was twice what the EPA defines as "unhealthy." It also remained the highest in the nation for that day. The Mayor and the health department were put in the awkward position of asking residents to feel better about air that was only "unhealthy" rather than the original designation of "very unhealthy." In any case, Cache County officials told children, older adults, and anybody with heart or lung disease to stay inside. Even daily joggers were forced to resort to treadmills and indoor tracks.

Other than that, the mayor was frequently quoted saying, "There is nothing we can do." This may be true, but it ignores the past tense. "Was there anything we could have done?

Logan isn't used to records or being called "unhealthy." For the most part it loves anonymity and playing fifth or even sixth fiddle to other more recognizable Utah red rock and Redford destinations. Our size is officially about 45,000, but the metro area is closer to 60,000, with the whole valley topping 100,000. If you haven't driven through here on your way to Yellowstone, you'll probably have to reach for a map to find us. We like it that way.

I'm a 23-year resident and for the most part, an apologist for Logan. The names Washington, DC, Los Angeles and even Salt Lake City rolled off our tongues like we were spitting out spoiled milk. A lot of us ran away from dirty, crowded cities like those to live here. So, what happened? Outside of Fox News and radio pundits there are no easy answers. All the Mormons, gentiles, college kids, geezers and the 75,000 dairy cattle conspired to make this happen. Even the good, green-hearted brethren contributed by burning wood to preserve fossil fuels even though there are no hardwood trees in sight. It took a whole village to make this happen.

Like many towns, we tore up the streetcar tracks in the 1950s to make way for automobiles and parking spaces. We fought starting a city bus line until 10 years ago. We built a downtown bypass route and then quickly gave up on it because we didn't think the town was growing fast enough to need it. We gave up on bike paths because we thought we were too rural to need them. We started fencing off the canal paths that crisscross the valley because neighbors were worried about privacy and personal liability. We courted big box stores and chain restaurants because we had low self-esteem about what our town had to offer. All these new businesses went after the main street property and installed a drive-through window for everything from dry cleaning to veggie wraps.

We fought emission-controls testing on our cars because we didn't want the extra hassle or cost. We decided that a view from the mountainsides was worth the commute. In short, we inhaled deeply from the addictive tail pipe of the personal automobile. It was easy to convince ourselves that we weren't addicted, but really we are just so deeply in denial that we can't see it. Look closely. Everybody in my neighborhood shovels their driveways, but only about half of them shovel their sidewalks.

Of course, none of this makes us unique sinners on the American dreamscape. What makes us different is geography. The same things that make this a beautiful mountain valley conspire to create a lethal winter inversion soup. Nothing that comes out of our cars, furnaces, wood stoves, power plants and even our bucolic Holsteins leaves the valley during these winter inversions. We get to swim in our own soup.

The spin coming from the mayor and city council is that this is only an aberration. On average, we have much cleaner air than most cities. Dissenters are made to feel like Roy Scheider in the movie Jaws, but like that fictional beach town, Logan is beautiful most of the time, only sometimes it could kill you.

Dennis Hinkamp writes for Salt Lake City Catalyst and High Country News.

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