Inversion Conversion | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly
Support the Free Press | Facts matter. Truth matters. Journalism matters
Salt Lake City Weekly has been Utah's source of independent news and in-depth journalism since 1984. Donate today to ensure the legacy continues.

News » Cover Story

Inversion Conversion

Somehow, the uber-Republican Legislature budgeted more than $29 million to improve Utah's air. That's not a typo.


  • Enrique Limón/FILE

One call changed everything. It was the year 2011, and Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, was driving in South Weber when his cell phone rang. It was an unfamiliar number. Handy pulled over to the side of the road. The angry caller told Handy he had asthma—what was the first-term state legislator going to do to improve Utah's air quality?

"I said, 'What do you mean?' I can't legislate geography, I can't move the mountains,'" Handy says, remembering the caller did not take that response well. "He swore at me."

It was a flippant comment, Handy admits. But then he started thinking about his childhood and all the times hazy air had affected his life. Like one winter evening in the early '60s, when Handy, his sister and his father were visiting their family in Holladay. After the soiree, the trio piled into their dad's 1960 Pontiac Bonneville to drive back to their home in Ogden. The inversion made that trek difficult. "On the way out of there, it was, 'Oh my gosh, how are we gonna get back?'" Handy recalls. "It was pea soup that you couldn't see in."

Handy and his sister, 12 and 10 years old at the time, put on their jackets, got out of the car and guided their dad to an intersection so he could orient himself and get them home. They walked slowly through the cold and the muck as their dad drove slowly behind them. "You could see better outside the car than in the car," Handy explains. "The headlights were not helpful. It was so thick, so you relied upon human eyesight."

As more experiences like this popped into Handy's head, he realized bad air quality seasons had been a constant issue, occurring annually like Christmas and Easter. "Inversions are something that I've known my whole life," Handy says. "We used to call it fog. We didn't know what it was."

In the years since, Handy has educated himself on the science behind Utah's occasionally atrocious air quality. Approaching the subject with an open mind, he began his air awakening by reading academic research and talking with constituents, the state's Division of Air Quality and nonprofits like Moms for Clean Air and Breathe Utah. He learned that the state's growth influx could adversely affect its air. More people means more cars on the road, and more new Utahns means more people who have asthma and pulmonary issues, chronic conditions made even worse by unhealthy, foggy, thick air.

Handy has become a fierce advocate of making sure the air Utahns breathe is as safe as possible. Sure, he can't legislate topography, but he can propose bills that are intended to better purge the sky of dangerous chemicals. He floated four such pieces of legislation in the last session, three of which passed.

He also played a part in the Legislature's appropriating more than $29 million for air quality-related initiatives, a stunning figure that dwarfs similar funding in years past. In his and others' telling, a confluence of factors came together to make last session a particularly good one for those who are passionate about clean air. Even in a deep-red state controlled by a Republican supermajority whose second-favorite religion behind Mormonism is worshipping fossil fuels, lawmakers have come around. In Handy's words, "I think Republicans have kind of finally gotten the message."

Rep. Todd Weiler - RAY HOWZE
  • Ray Howze
  • Rep. Todd Weiler

The Air Quality Queen's Crusade
It's impossible to have a conversation about air quality without talking about Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, whom Handy calls "the queen."

"She's the leader," Handy says.

Arent has survived 19 legislative sessions, but she didn't start working on clean air issues until 2011. Like many Utahns, she'd known that inversion happens in winter, when cold air trapped under warm air brings pollutants closer to the ground. And she became convinced she had to use her legislative power to combat poor air quality. She spoke with Utahns inside and outside her district, some who work in emergency rooms and told her that on bad air days, their departments are more packed with people with respiratory and cardiovascular issues, as well as pregnant mothers, who said they were worried about living in Utah during the winter.

"I first focused on the health issues," Arent says. But she knew she'd have to work hard to convince lawmakers from parts of the state with more pristine air that this was an issue worth tackling. She got her hands on a study conducted by Envision Utah, a local nonprofit focused on Utah's sustainable growth, that listed air quality as employees' No. 1 reason they'd leave the state. In other words, she appealed to her more conservative colleagues' bread and butter—economic development.

In 2013, Arent founded the Clean Air Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers—whose districts stretch across Utah, from Logan to St. George—that meets between sessions. Caucus co-chairs like Arent and Handy pay out of their own pockets for pizza so the attendees can munch while they discuss how to best limit pollutants.

"Since I created the caucus, we have passed more clean air legislation than in the history of our state," Arent boasts, adding that she's sponsored more clean air legislation than any other lawmaker.

One of the co-chairs is Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross. Like Handy, Weiler is an air quality apostle, but he wasn't always that way. "I think this was something I had to kind of realize," Weiler says.

An avid cyclist, Weiler had long known that inversion could affect his day-to-day life. "I'm kind of my own constituent when it comes to air quality," he says. Still, addressing the issue wasn't at the top of his agenda in 2012, when he ran for his seat in a special election, and then a few months later ran again in the general election. People told him they were worried about breathing the noxious pollutants, but cleaning the air wasn't among their top three concerns, Weiler says. At some point, that flipped. "The public cares more about it now."

Weiler points to a particularly bad inversion during the 2014 session as a turning point that brought the "air quality movement" into mainstream public consciousness. The air became especially murky for a stretch in February. "That's when the Legislature is in its sweet spot," he says. "Everyone was getting emails like, 'Our air stinks.'"

He thinks lawmakers passed more than a dozen air quality-related bills by the end of that session.

The Legislature Gallops
Air quality concerns crescendoed even before the last legislative session. Late last year, Gov. Gary Herbert called on lawmakers to appropriate $100 million for programs to improve the state's air. "The governor really got up on the horse and started galloping," Weiler says.

The budget proposal set the tone. Legislators passed a slew of bills intended to make it safer to breathe. They appropriated $500,000 for Free Fare Days, enough for people to ride public transportation free of charge on seven bad air days. They made it easier for cities to enforce their anti-idling policies, and increased fines associated with people "rolling coal," when drivers, for God knows what reason, blow thick, black smoke out of their exhaust pipes.

"I think we had more wins than losses," HEAL Utah Executive Director Scott Williams says.

Sure, there were bills passed that make air activists a little concerned, but Breathe Utah Policy Director Ashley Miller says this past session was "monumental." The 63rd Legislature was notable not just for what lawmakers did, but also for what they didn't do. "There wasn't one single thing that was really, really terrible," Miller says. "There's always something that's going to do something really bad for air quality, and we didn't have that this year."

Bills are great, but the windfall of funding is huge, too. "The $29 million we got is 29 times more than we normally get," Miller says.

Shortly before the session ended, Bryce Bird, director of the state's Division of Air Quality, emailed Arent and put the 2019 appropriation into perspective. The $14 million DAQ received was by far the largest amount budgeted since at least 2014. (The remaining $15 million in air-quality funding was sent to the Department of Administrative Services, so the agency could implement a work-from-home initiative and upgrade the state's vehicle fleet, among other priorities.) The closest DAQ got to its 2019 funding was in 2016, when lawmakers gave the department $7.3 million in one-time appropriations. The second-closest was a tie between 2015 and 2017, when the Legislature issued $1.5 million in one-time funding. In 2018, they gave just $800,000.

"It's an important part for the discussion," Bird tells City Weekly. "The $14 million won't solve everything right now, but it's an important step along the way."

To Arent, the boon was the result of years of work. "We've been doing such constant chipping away for so long," she says, reflecting on the session's air-quality bonanza. "It's been building up for years."

It wasn't always that way. Weiler remembers voicing his support for air-quality programs in committee hearings and on the Senate floor six years ago. "I would get some strange looks from my Republican colleagues," he says. "Now, everyone is talking about it."

Rep. Patrice Arent - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Rep. Patrice Arent

Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Handy credits public pressure for putting the onus on lawmakers to do what they can to clean up the air. Getting constantly called or emailed by concerned constituents has pushed Republican leaders to be more amenable to taking legislative action.

Air quality isn't a Republican or Democrat issue, HEAL Utah's Williams says. Legislators frequently get their ear talked off about inversion and wildfire pollution, regardless of whether the elected official has an R or a D next to their name. "I think they hear from a broad enough swath across the demographic spectrum—just ages, religion, income, they don't just hear it from some niche group," he says. "They hear about it in many different ways from many different people."

Still, Williams says, the calls come more frequently when the air is especially bad. Unlike the 2014 session Weiler remembers, the air during this past Legislature was relatively inversion-free, leaving some air-quality allies to temper their expectations before lawmakers approved the budget. "It's unfortunate you have to wish for bad air in order to get something done about bad air," Williams says.

"When people see it, they understand it better," Arent echoes. The timing is also important. Lawmakers OK Utah's budget toward each session's end. Air-quality issues aren't top-of-mind by that point. "If the session ended in mid-February, it would be easier," Arent says. "But it ends in mid-March, and by then, the inversion season is over." The Continuous Threat

Clear sky or not, Handy says science has advanced since his Holladay inversion experience in the '60s, which has better informed his Republican colleagues and further convinced them of the need to act. "Sometimes things, they just take time to mature," Handy explains.

"As a Republican, I want to believe in the free market and private enterprise, but there's no free market incentive for cleaning up the air," Weiler says. "It pains me to admit this as a Republican, but the Clean Air Act is working."

Byrd says Utah's Air Quality Board adopted the State Implementation Plan this past January, to identify the sources of emissions in the air and outline a plan to achieve the regulations set by the feds. He gives kudos to the SIP for helping to secure the massive amount of air-quality funding. "It is vital, and we have a long history of developing these plans in response to changing standards over time," he says.

Breathe Utah's Miller says the nine months between now and the 2020 session are crucial. It takes a sustained effort to keep communication lines open between air-quality activists and lawmakers. "Our legislators have a lot of issues to work on, and not just air quality," she says, so the more organizations like hers, the better. "Legislators," she adds, "really hate to be labeled as not caring about clean air."

Arent remains optimistic the interest in funding initiatives that promote cleaning the state's air will remain strong. "Will it be $29 million? I don't know that," she says. "I always work hard to make sure we get funding for air quality, and I will continue to work hard."

Air advocates will need to show lawmakers there was a return on their investment in order to secure future funding, Weiler says. "They're gonna say, 'Show me what we got for the $29 million,'" Weiler predicts. "And if we don't have something to show them, then we're not going to get much money."

The 2019 session was unique in another critical way—the state had a $1.3 billion surplus to play with. Of the $29,058,400 spent on air quality this year, just $45,400 is ongoing funding. "I think one thing to know about this appropriation is it's almost all one-time money," Williams says. Environmental issues loom on the horizon—the inland port and the state's explosive growth, for instance, are creating serious concerns about the environment.

"It's hopeful they were willing to put that much money into it, but it's going to require an ongoing commitment of year after year after year to get ahead of things," Williams says of the air-quality crusade. "This is an ongoing, year-after-year effort that we've got to stay on top of."