Utah's air quality improved this year amid increased public attention to the issue



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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's air quality improved this year, driven by more-frequent storms and new pollution controls, state environmental officials said Monday.

The improved conditions came after public outcry turned up the pressure on leaders to tackle the state's air quality, which can be the worst in the country when weather conditions trap pollution in the bowl-shaped mountain basins.

Soot counts dropped by half in some northern parts of the state during inversion periods in 2014, said Bo Call, who monitors the pollution for the Utah Division of Air Quality. The northern part of Provo reported soot counts of 81 parts per million during the period when winter pollution was worst last year, more than double the federal standard. This year, that number dropped to 25. The shift wasn't as dramatic in other parts of the state, though. Salt Lake City had a drop from about 59 parts per million to about 45, still above the federal standard.

Last winter's thick December smog spurred public outcry as thousands of people rallied on the steps of the state Capitol. The public pressure and the sight of the grimy air pushed the issue to the forefront at the Utah Legislature, said Erin Mendenall, policy director for Breathe Utah.

"I think it was the best session we've ever had," she said. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed eight bills doing things such as supporting cleaner cars and replacing woodburning stoves. An annual environmental report released Monday by the state's Department of Environmental Quality also points to $1 million in new money to research the issue.

Pollution controls that went into effect over a year ago, including restrictions on consumer pollutants like hairspray, also helped improve the air this year, said Call.

But the weather is also a large factor. The worst winter pollution happens when a layer of warm air traps cold air and pollutants in the state's valleys, but a change in the weather can clear it out.

"If we get a storm every four or five days, if you're pushing a lot of snow, and there's a lot of great skiing, that it's generally better," Call said. Though 2014 was a relatively good year compared with its predecessor, it was still beat by the snowier 2012.

Some factors that drive poor air quality are mysterious. Utah County had some of the state's worst air last year, but it's not entirely clear why. One theory is that Utah Lake froze and acted like a mirror for sunlight, affecting the chemistry of the air and creating more particulates.

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