On bad air days, Utah looks for ways to crack down

Posted at 9:56 PM, Feb 10, 2014
and last updated 2014-02-11 00:26:24-05

LAYTON -- Rick Ombach drives through the neighborhood, looking for air pollution.

A Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ) compliance officer, he responds to complaints about wood burning on bad air days.

"This year, we're getting quite a bit more complaints. We're issuing a lot more citations," he said. "The public's really supporting air quality concerns quite a bit."

On a typical winter day along the Wasatch Front, wood burning and other "area sources" make up 32 percent of emissions, according to figures provided by the Utah Division of Air Quality. The vast majority, about 57-percent, comes from vehicles. The figures estimate 11-percent is contributed by industry.

Research from the University of Utah has suggested that burning a log for an hour creates pollution equivalent to driving from Salt Lake City to St. George and back. That statistic was cited by Governor Gary Herbert in his annual state of the state address, as he proposed a wood burning ban during all of inversion season.

In response to bad air days, the DAQ has become more aggressive about citing people who burn on "no burn days," largely due to public complaints. FOX 13 requested the number of citations issued by the agency:

  • 2009-2010: 54 complaints, 1 citation
  • 2010-2011: 39 complaints, 0 citations
  • 2011-2012: 12 complaints, 1 citation
  • 2012-2013: 86 complaints, 16 citations and 8 warning letters (first time violators in new counties)
  • Nov. 1, 2013-Feb. 2, 2014: 304 complaints, 55 citations

When he responds to a complaint, Ombach will pull up to the house, take a picture to document the violation, and drop off a pamphlet.

"Education is what we want to get out more than anything," he said.

Violations range from $25 for the first offense, $150 for the second offense, and $299 for the third. DAQ waives the $25 penalty if those ticketed sit through a class on ways to reduce pollution.

One of those recently cited insisted it is her sole source of heat.

"We have no choice," said Merlynn Stoddard. "It's either burn or go cold."

Stoddard told FOX 13 she lives on disability and the electric heaters she owns do not do enough to warm her home. There are only about 200 people on a state-run registry for sole sources of heat. The deadline to be on that list was June 1, 2013.

Stoddard is not on that list.

"I told the gentleman, I said, 'What would be better? Burn a fire or go sit in my car and let it run for heat? Which is worse?'"

The state is looking for solutions, including funding to help people swap out their wood burning stoves for natural gas furnaces. Stoddard believes the state should look at cars more.

"Concentrate on the cars," she said. "We'll do our part. We watch the temperature, we wear jackets."

Idling ordinances: Salt Lake City is one of only a handful of cities that has an ordinance designed to stop vehicle idling -- although it is largely ineffective.

The ordinance was created in 2011 in an effort to crack down on pollution from vehicles. It was passed in 2012, with a long list of exemptions.

"We're at two minutes of idling as our limit instead of 30 seconds. There are temperature restrictions," said Erin Mendenhall, the executive director of the clean air advocacy group Breathe Utah and a Salt Lake City Councilwoman.

Among the exemptions: Emergency vehicles, warming up cars, drive-thrus (if signs are posted notifying people about idling), private property, and a temperature exemption when it drops below 32-degrees Farenheit.

The average temperature in January -- the height of inversion season -- is 29-degrees.

"If we're below 32 degrees, you're free to idle and the ordinance is no longer in effect," said Mendenhall. "So a lot of these days when we're quite cold and it's exactly the time you shouldn't be idling, you're exempt from it."

The ordinance allows the city to cite people after three warnings. FOX 13 requested the records from the Salt Lake City Mayor's Office and found that since May  2012, 36 warnings have been issued but zero citations.

"Our goal is not to give people citations," said Mayor Ralph Becker. "Our goal is to help people understand they can save money in their pockets, they can reduce the pollution they're emitting."

Mendenhall said the city had more enforcement ability, but it was largely gutted by the Utah State Legislature. Becker said he is encouraging people to contact their state lawmakers to push for more clean air legislation.

"We're asking not only directly in our communications with our legislators, but our public to let our legislators know that we need to clean up our air, we need to take meaningful action," he said.