The perky voice of Donna Kemp Spangler, spokesperson for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, came over the radio announcing a "red alert" day in Salt Lake County, meaning the air quality was "unhealthy." People with respiratory problems, especially the elderly, were advised to stay indoors. Outdoor exercise? Not a good idea. What could we do about it? Carpool or take public transportation.
Barbara took a sip of her coffee and turned toward the window. "No sun again today. These inversions are awful."
I coughed a little and realized that I had been feeling a little heavy in the chest for the past week, about as long as the current temperature inversion, which traps colder air along with pollutants, had persisted.
Temperature inversions, which are an inevitable consequence of the geographic configuration of Salt Lake Valley, will always be a part of the winter pattern. The fact that they also trap and concentrate airborne pollutants, including harmful gases and particulates, makes them unhealthy. And in the summer, ozone concentrations poison our air.
"We need to get out of here," Barbara said.
"You mean today? Head up into the mountains?" I asked.
"No, I mean move. When we retire. We won't have to stay. Why keep breathing this gunk when we don't have to?"
That moment, that day of poisonous air, was the first step in our exodus from this place that had been our home for nearly forty years, where we had raised a family, worked for long and rewarding careers, made friends, been part of communities of interesting and talented people. An exodus from toxic air, away, away, as refugees from policies that promote more vehicles, more pollution, more poisonous air. It was not an easy decision, nor an easy task, but we knew it was the right one. And we did it. We left Utah. We felt that we had to.
We are now free from the polluted inversions, and from the inverted priorities that prioritize growth at the expense of health. That nagging cough is now gone. My sinuses have never felt better. And I now feel that my vote might actually count. We are only twelve miles beyond the Utah state line, but on a clear day, which is nearly every day, it feels like light years.
We are privileged, we realize, to have been able to pull off a retreat from the state and county that rank near the top in the country for toxic chemicals released into the environment. Not everyone is able to escape, but everyone who remains, and those who care about the place, including me, must work hard to elect officials who will stand up for the people, for their health, for the health of their children, rather than for the corporations that profit from unrestricted exploitation of the resources of this state. People are gasping for breath and dying early deaths. Until priorities change, the Salt Lake Valley and all of Utah will only stride surely and steadily toward becoming a toxic wasteland, a place Brigham Young would have marched on by without pausing in search of a place worthy of embracing as home.
Kevin Jones is an archaeologist and writer. He served as Utah's State Archaeologist for seventeen years, and is the author of the anthropological novel The Shrinking Jungle. He and his wife Barbara Evert live near Pleasant View, Colorado. b. 1951