Commentary: Inland port is an air quality disaster waiting to happen
Last summer The Salt Lake Tribune ran an editorial on the proposed inland port. The editorial acknowledged what few lawmakers and port proponents have been willing to do so far:
“We will see large increases in truck and train traffic. Hundreds of diesel engines could be added to the airshed … a jump in cargo plane traffic. Rail, on-highway diesel trucks and operations at the airport are already responsible for about a fifth of the air pollution along the Wasatch Front … We will also be doubling down on air pollution when we’re already maxed out … We will hear a lot of talk about building a ‘green’ port, and that’s good. But there is no scenario where it is anything close to zero emissions. We need aggressive countermeasures on other pollution sources.”
While The Tribune’s frankness is necessary, and should be welcomed even by the port’s most ardent supporters, but I would like make a few additional points about air pollution.
First, if there are “offsets” or “counter measures” that the community can adopt to make room for many tons of new, highly toxic diesel emissions, why aren’t we adopting those offsets already? Why wait for an inland port to reduce those other sources of pollution? Isn’t our air bad enough already that we should be implementing all those “offsets” regardless? If our lawmakers are unwilling to make those improvements now, why does anyone think they will have a sudden change of heart after the arrival of all the added pollution from an inland port?
Second, because there is no safe level of air pollution, adhering to national standards via offsets should be viewed in a different context. While the standards for which we are perennially in violation are better than nothing, merely having those standards creates the false impression that achieving them will be adequate to protect our health. That is not the case.
Not only does the medical research definitively establish that all air pollution is harmful, even levels far below national standards, the research goes a step further. The relationship between pollution concentration and death and disease is not linear, it is steeper at low doses. For “pollution” from cigarette smoke that translates into this clinical axiom — smoking just one cigarette a day is half as much risk as smoking a full pack. For pollution in our airshed it means this. Just as merely one cigarette harms a smoker, even “green” air quality is still harming the community and small increases will have disproportionately larger impacts.
Third, not all particulate pollution is created equal. The chemical toxicity of diesel emissions is greater than most of the other sources of particulate pollution. Specifically, a ton of diesel particulate pollution is worse than a ton of particulate pollution from automobile tailpipes, making offsets in health consequences a more complicated if not unrealistic proposition.
Fourth, the offsets argument doesn’t take into account microenvironments. Pollution tends to concentrate near its sources, and the health consequences that we allow as a community can be vastly different comparing the east side of the Salt Lake Valley to the west, and even from one neighborhood to another. No neighborhood or township should be treated as a sacrifice zone for the economic development of another, or of the state as a whole. While pollution from an inland port would be harmful to everyone on the Wasatch Front, it would be disproportionately harmful to those that live near it, and everyone else that lives near all the freeways that would be more congested from thousands of new diesel trucks, like is now proposed for the Legacy Highway.
Utah is not in desperate need of an economic stimulus. It is in desperate need of clean air. But for those who only look through our smog and see dollar signs, clean air itself would be a much bigger economic stimulus than an inland port.
To educate the public, Utah Physicians for a Health Environment will join many other groups in presenting a half-day forum on the inland port, Saturday at 9 a.m. at the Utah State Fair Park, Zion Building.
Jonny Vasic is the executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, working on air quality issues in the Salt Lake Valley.