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Thousands Rally for Clean Air Legislation

Jennifer Pemberton

Thousands of protesters turned up at the Utah State Capitol over the weekend for the “Clean Air, No Excuses” rally. UPR’s Jennifer Pemberton tells us why voters and activists are targeting lawmakers two days before the start of the general legislative session.

This time last year Utahns living in Cache Valley or along the Wasatch front could still walk into work and complain about the air pollution and winter inversions and their co-workers could still look at them funny and say “what inversion? what pollution?”

“We’ve really seen a fairly dramatic shift in the past year to two years in terms of how important air quality is to everybody. Entering into last year’s legislative session I believe we had 2 or 3 bills focused on air quality. Going into this session we’ve got at least 14 or 15," says Matt Pacenza from HEAL Utah. He has helped create a roadmap for the more than 15 proposed bills that address air quality this legislative session.

Not only is air quality on the lobbyists’ and lawmakers’ radar, it has also come to a head with voters, who rallied on the steps of the Utah Capitol thousands strong on Saturday, wearing respirators and carrying signs indicating it’s time for change and urging their elected officials to sign those changes into law.

Brian Moench from Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, one of the organizing groups of the rally, said in his opening statements, “This is your state. What goes on in the building behind us is your government. The air that you breathe is largely what you make of it, either by ignoring it, making it worse by neglect, or by fighting to make it better.”

He’s predicting that the Clean Air, No Excuses rally will signal a watershed moment in Utah’s fight for clean air. It’s kind of the hand-off from the activists to the state government.

Folk singer Tom Bennett wrote the song “Governor, We Cannot Breathe” specifically for the rally, even though organizers did not expect Governor Herbert to attend. Moench joked with the crowd, “This just in...Governor Herbert can't make it."

Credit Jennifer Pemberton
Tom Bennett performs "Governor, We Cannot Breathe," a song he composed for the rally.

But some lawmakers like Salt Lake City representative Patrice Arent, who co-chairs the bipartisan clean air caucus, aren’t afraid to be associated with the protesters.

“It is time for the legislature -- this year -- to take meaningful action to pass laws that will make a difference to clean up our air," said Arent, who is the sponsor of some of those bills, including HB 38 which will create a sustainability director position for the state.

Other proposed bills address wood-burning stoves, industry regulation, public transportation incentives, and one leftover from last year’s session, which revises a law that says the state cannot have tougher regulations than the EPA, “ that we can address Utah problems with Utah solutions,” she explains.

Representative Joel Briscoe also got up to the podium, encouraging voters to do their part to get the clean air bills passed into law.

“Will you contact your member of the Utah state senate and tell them to vote for the clean air bills in the legislature this year? Will you contact your member of the Utah house of representatives and tell them to vote for the fifteen clean air bills this year? Will you contact the governor’s office and tell him to sign those bills?” Briscoe asked.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker asked for something similar from voters. “Work with our legislators," he asked. "Be firm. Be specific. But be respectful and be civil. We’re fed up with this gunk in our air, but our goal is to make real change.”

The issue of air pollution in Utah is being tackled in a number of different ways from a number of different angles. There are educational campaigns directed toward people making voluntary changes to their habits, like driving less or reducing energy consumption at home. There are court battles that challenge big industrial polluters like Utah’s refineries and incinerators. There are petitions to sign and rallies to attend.

“There are a whole bunch of ways to eat this apple," according to Matt Pacenza.

Pacenza suggests that if you are interested in following the air quality bills as they make their way through the legislation process, find a group or resource, like HEAL Utah, that will help you navigate the committees and hearings and floor votes that make up the next 45 days.

The 2014 General Session of the Utah Legislature starts on Monday and over the next month and a half we’ll see whether clean air in Utah will remain the chant of protestors ("Clean Air, No Excuses!") or if the state government will pass some laws that will address their demands.

Credit Jennifer Pemberton
Thousands of protesters asked Utah legislators to consider air quality bills during the 2014 General Legislative Session

Credit Jennifer Pemberton
A layer of air pollution is clearly visible over Salt Lake City during the "Clean Air, No Excuses" rally on Saturday, January 25, 2014.