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Midvale Journal

O2 Utah promotes cleaner air through elections and policy

Jul 07, 2023 12:48PM ● By Genevieve Vahl

Clear blue skies up Little Cottonwood Canyon in the fall. (Genevieve Vahl/City Journals)

House Bill 220, constructed and proposed by environmental nonprofit O2 Utah, passed unanimously in both chambers and was signed into law on March 14 with sponsorship from Sen. Kirk Cullimore and Rep. Andrew Stoddard, developing legislation to begin reducing the unfettered dumping of toxic halogens into our airshed. 

O2 Utah’s mission is to “clean our state’s air and eliminate our contributions to climate change through elections and policy,” according to their website. 

“I thought we needed an organization that followed a three-step plan,” said David Garbett, the director and founder of O2 Utah. “Step one, getting involved in elections; two, building relationships with policymakers; and three, giving them policy.”

Once an attorney with public lands groups, Garbett’s legal focus centered on air quality. “I didn’t see anybody putting forward a plan that said follow these steps if we want to get clean air,” Garbett said. “Before was a lot of telling legislators to do better, but not telling them how to do better.” Thus, the genesis of O2 Utah. 

“I think that campaigns are really where policy starts, it’s the best opportunity for us to start influencing decision makers and helping build relationships,” Garbett said. 

Although a nonprofit, O2 Utah is also a 501(c)(4), an organization that can endorse candidates, campaign and make donations. The organization campaigned to support Cullimore and Stoddard during their reelection in 2022, communicating with voters that these two candidates were going to work toward solving air quality issues in Utah. A messaging experiment they ran during that time found that swing voters are 16% more likely to support a pro-air quality candidate. 

With legal backgrounds, Garbett and his team of five others have the capacity to write legal proposals that actually have weight, translating science concepts into legislative language and programs. “It’s one thing to have science on paper, but that is not going to get policy itself.”

“It’s a part of our theory that we need to give legislators a roadmap to get clean air, and we call that road map Prosperity 2030,” Garbett said. This “northstar” of theirs aims to cut emissions by 50% along the Wasatch Front by 2030. Those emissions reduced from the three main local polluters they’ve identified: transportation, homes and buildings and industrial sources.

HB 220 is one section working toward Prosperity 2030, focusing solely on industrial sources like halogens released as byproducts, like bromine. The bill conclusively requires the Division of Air Quality (DAQ) to make a recommendation to the legislature on a state halogen emissions limit by the end of 2024. In the meantime, DAQ must set a tech-based standard for bromine and other halogen emissions, requiring companies to use certain tools to limit emissions. DAQ must identify and quantify all industrial sources of halogens. And, halogen emissions must be controlled no later than 2026. This compromised bill quickly passed through the House and Senate floors before Gov. Spencer Cox signed it into law on March 14. 

Bromine can be found on the periodic table in the only element group that can exist as solid, liquid and gas. “The main polluter here are particles, sometimes called soot particles, that are typically measured as PM2.5, particulate matter 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller,” Garbett said. “These are really, really tiny particles that are damaging because if you breathe them in, they cause all kinds of problems.”

These particles come out of tailpipes, smokestacks, vents in homes and buildings. Anytime there is combustion. But that only accounts for 25 to 30% of the particles in the air during bad inversions. The majority of the particles come from chemical reactions that change gasses into these tiny particles. “Because we have that condition where the air is really still and there is sunlight at the top of that inversion, it causes chemical reactions that change gasses into tiny particles. That’s where bromine comes in,” Garbett said. 

Combustion adds particulate matter, tiny soot particles, to the air. Combustion also produces gasses, which react in chemical reactions that change those gasses into more particulate matter in the air—a secondary formation. Creating a vicious cycle of reacting in those two ways, where bromine is a hypercharged producer of particulate matter.  

“It’s a super reactant that when combining bromine during inversion with gasses that are already in the air, it makes a lot more particles form than you’d have otherwise.” But it’s not something the state nor the EPA have previously regulated. 

US Magnesium is the main producer of magnesium in the country, located here because magnesium is extracted from salt deposits, also the only place bromine is found naturally. “It’s either the ocean or the Great Salt Lake,” Garbett said. So when processing these salts to extract magnesium, bromine is a byproduct. “Which they basically have been dumping into the airshed. Finding that it’s making our inversions anywhere from 10 to 25% worse,” Garbett said. 

HB 220 evolved as it moved through the House and the Senate, with heavy opposition from industry. They got as far as amending the legislation to a “toothless study bill,” claiming they wanted more information before being sanctioned with limits and restrictions, taking a page from the “big tobacco playbook.” But thanks to the sponsors Cullimore and Stoddard, they amended the bill back to having teeth, successfully passing through the Senate. “Most of the coverage didn’t understand or appreciate that it went from a study to real action demanding bill because of the Senate,” Garbett said. Eventually garnering enough support, the bill passed unanimously in both chambers. 

“The legislature took a great step,” Garbett said. “I want to commend them for that, it was a really big deal.”   

Garbett and his team at O2 Utah are so adamant about improving the quality of air we breathe because of the capacity at which the poor air impacts our lives so negatively. “The best research says that we’re dying here in Utah two to five years earlier because of our bad air,” Garbett said, “and that has so many different health impacts and is a big drag on our economy.” 

From employees calling out sick when the inversion is really bad, asthma flaring up and needing medical attention, to people dying from heart attacks because the lungs have to work harder that ultimately puts more stress on the heart, the health impacts lead to economic impact, stunting the potential of this place. “Those sorts of impacts add up and it’s estimated to cost our economy, on a conservative estimate, about $2 billion annually.” 

“Take US Magnesium for example, one cost of their product should be dealing with the pollution that makes people sick,” Garbett said. “They’re just offloading costs onto the public and that doesn’t get priced into the goods they’re producing.”  

Developing science into direct legislative action to begin mitigating these negative impacts on our community in the Salt Lake Valley is exactly O2 Utah’s goals when passing important legislation like HB 220. “We can’t just have unfettered dumping of bromine into the air,” Garbett said. 

Now the organization is going to continue following the path of their Prosperity 2030 goal, looking for any and all opportunities to do that. 

“To see industry lose on an issue was really exciting. The people won here, clean air won. Thanks to hard work from legislators and sticking with that,” Garbett said. And the work of his small team working to improve the quality of life here in the Salt Lake Valley.  

“The most important thing the public does is set priorities. The public doesn’t have to know the science, they don’t have to know the details,” Garbett said. “What they do know is that they hate our dirty air. That’s what should be conveyed to legislators, to help them understand this needs to be a higher priority.” λ