Utah Among States with Worst Air Pollution, But Company Responsible is Friends with the Governor

By Sydney LaPine

As Utah smog has continued to worsen, making it unsafe for vulnerable individuals to venture outdoors on some days, lawmakers have started searching for solutions. Health experts have found that the poor air quality in the state can lead to severe health consequences including lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, a weakened immune system, and heart disease.[1] Because of the cold temperatures and long winters, locals are accustomed to seeing foggy skies and inversions. An inversion refers to when warmer air traps cold air in the valleys, partly because snow on the ground keeps the lower altitudes cooler. But cold air is not the only thing that gets trapped—so does pollution and emissions.

Policymakers’ main proposals for reducing emissions have been to incentivize residents to buy cleaner cars, to offer free public transit, prohibit wood-burning stoves, and tighten emission requirements for both residential and non-residential buildings.[2] But all of these measures are relatively modest and would be likely to burden individual residents while doing little to improve overall air quality. These policies also ignore the true culprit of Utah’s dirty air. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently conducted a study that found that the company US Magnesium is responsible for up to 25% of the pollution that contributes to smog along the Wasatch Front, a mountain range in North-Central Utah.[3] The Great Salt Lake is responsible for almost all of the United States’ supply of magnesium and approximately 14% of the world’s supply.[4] Upon release of the study, Utah’s Governor, Spencer Cox, asked that the EPA add U.S. Magnesium’s land into Utah’s Northern Wasatch Front ozone nonattainment area. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality and other state agencies must develop a plan for how they will improve the air quality in nonattainment zones in order to meet EPA standards and these areas may be subject to more frequent monitoring.

In September of 2023, US Magnesium agreed to a $430,900 settlement with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality for several pollution violations, with the oldest occurring in 2015, but members of the Utah Air Quality Board felt that this amount was a weak punishment.[5] The low amount is likely a result of the $50,000 donated to Governor Cox’s campaign by Renco, a company with investments in US Magnesium.[6] Aside from the settlement, the DEQ’s Division of Air Quality has a record of at least 30 violations involving US Magnesium since 2013. Utah House Bill 220 which was sponsored by Democratic Representative Andrew Stoddard was intended to significantly reduce emissions by targeting US Magnesium primarily through more stringent regulation of bromine. After undergoing revisions in Congress, the bill now only mandates that a study of all halogens be conducted to identify and measure point sources of air pollution.

The resulting information from the study required by Utah HB 220 is only helpful for mitigating pollution if such data is used to support legislation that will have more power to regulate US Magnesium emissions. Unfortunately, this seems to be a case in which politics are harming the health of the environment, as well as the health of Utah residents. Furthermore, other studies have determined that West Salt Lake experiences the worst air quality and highest levels of pollution.[7] It is no coincidence that West Salt Lake is also where more low-income families and people of color reside.[8] Ensuring US Magnesium is more harshly punished for violations and more carefully regulated is one step toward achieving environmental justice in the state.

[1] Mariah Maynes, “Protecting Your Health during Utah’s Inversion Season,” KSLNewsRadio, December 6, 2023, https://kslnewsradio.com/2063064/protecting-your-health-during-utahs-inversion-season/#:~:text=Exposure%20to%20unhealthy%20air%20quality.

[2] Sean Higgins, “After Last Week’s Bad Inversion, Here Are Utah Lawmakers’ Air Quality Proposals,” KUER, February 7, 2023, https://www.kuer.org/politics-government/2023-02-07/after-last-weeks-bad-inversion-here-are-utah-lawmakers-air-quality-proposals.

[3] Ibid

[4] Adam Small, “US Magnesium Plans to Challenge Study Naming Them as Major Polluter,” KSLNewsRadio, June 26, 2023, https://kslnewsradio.com/2014707/u-s-magnesium-challenging-study-naming-them-major-polluter/.

[5] Ben Winslow, “Utah Settles with U.S. Magnesium over Years of Environmental Violations,” FOX 13 News Utah (KSTU), September 13, 2023, https://www.fox13now.com/news/local-news/utah-settles-with-u-s-magnesium-over-years-of-environmental-violations.

[6] Leia Larsen, “US Magnesium Avoided Paying Millions for Alleged Air Quality Infractions and Gave Big Donations to Utah Lawmakers,” The Salt Lake Tribune, February 16, 2024, https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2024/02/16/us-magnesium-avoided-paying/.

[7] Bridger Beal-Cvetko, “Environmental Justice Report Shows Air Quality Disparities on Salt Lake City’s West Side,” www.ksl.com, July 25, 2023, https://www.ksl.com/article/50694228/environmental-justice-report-shows-air-quality-disparities-on-salt-lake-citys-west-side.

[8] Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, “Neighborhoods – University Neighborhood Partners,” www.partners.utah.edu, accessed March 4, 2024, https://www.partners.utah.edu/about-unp/neighborhoods/#:~:text=A%20large%20majority%20of%20west.

4 thoughts on “Utah Among States with Worst Air Pollution, But Company Responsible is Friends with the Governor

  1. Wow, that’s ridiculous. It’s really frustrating to see weird political situations like this occur but it’s beyond me how we could somehow mitigate them. But the pattern of companies getting off easy while communities and the environment suffer really needs to stop. I think everyone should be working towards creating a better environment but I also think it’s really unfair for the government to pin the job on us and ignore the larger root of the problem because they make money off of it. Hopefully, Utah can get its act together though and start prioritizing the state’s health. (Great job on the blog btw! 🙂 )

  2. Great blog post, Sydney! Growing up in San Bernardino and LA County, I have witnessed how poor air quality from wildfires and traffic emissions has disproportionately impacted the health and overall well-being of low-income communities and communities of color. I’ve also noticed that the actions (or lack of action) taken by local governments in these areas have played a pivotal role in determining the extent to which communities can recover from environmental challenges and build resilience against future climate threats. There is an obvious urgent need for cities in Utah to take more proactive measures to address air quality issues and prioritize the health of their residents over corrupt political influence.

  3. Great blog! I enjoyed reading it. I’m curious to learn more about magnesium. What does the U.S. use magnesium for? What would be the impact of lower magnesium production on supply chains? I also wonder what the balance is between reducing emissions from this company without hurting magnesium extraction? That being said, this collusion between a private company and the government is horrible! The government – at both the state and federal – needs to have true authority to regulate companies and their emissions. Otherwise, we will never be able to get a handle on climate change and pollution.

  4. Sydney, your blog post about the air pollution crisis in Utah deeply concerned me. As someone who cares about both the environment and public health, I found it infuriating to learn that a single company – US Magnesium – is responsible for up to 25% of the pollution contributing to the hazardous smog along the Wasatch Front. It’s even more disappointing to hear that the company seems to be getting off lightly due to it “cozy” relationship with the governor. This is a clear case of corporate interests being prioritized over the wellbeing of Utah resident, especially the vulnerable low-income and minority communities in West Salt Lake who are bearing the brunt of the pollution. We need stronger legislation and enforcement to hold US Magnesium accountable and force them to clean up their act. Half-measures like the watered-down HB 220 simply won’t cut it! The health of our communities and our environment should always come before political donations and cronyism. Thank you for shining a light on this injustice.

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