Utah’s Air Pollution: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

BY ON March 14, 2013

Picture of old power plant

Years ago, while finishing up my Environmental Studies degree at the University of Utah, I remember learning about toxic smelting plants. It was a public uproar in the Salt Lake Valley over a hundred years ago. I’ll never forget my surprise when I learned that in the early 1900’s, a group of farmers took on big industry…and won.

Times are quite different today, but the message remains the same: toxic industry destroys. Although clean air activists in Utah may not be comprised of only a group of farmers, our history shows the possibility for change, even when up against industry.


In 1906, a small group of farmers filed a lawsuit against Bingham and USSRM mining companies which operated copper smelting plants in the cities of Midvale and Murray, Utah. Concentrations of sulfur oxides and arsenic fumes from the mining operations were damaging crops nearby. Despite the farmers efforts in meeting with the plants’ management, operations continued and farmers saw a devastating loss of crops. (Unfortunately, scientific-based evidence of the health consequences from toxic fumes was virtually non-existent during this time). However, the farmers didn’t give up. They filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court in Utah against the big industrial powers and defeated them. A decree was entered on November 13, 1906 banning the smelters from emitting a specific amount of sulfur oxides from its operations. Consequently, the Bingham Consolidated and Utah Consolidated Copper Smelter ceased operations in 1907.

Despite the restrictions of smelting plants in place in Salt Lake County in 1906, in August of 1905 the ASARCO (American Smelting and Refining Company) had already begun construction of a new smelting plant just outside county line, west of Salt Lake City in Tooele County. Although immediate danger had been perpetually eliminated by the removal of plant operations sitting side by side farmland, little did they know toxic emissions from mining operations would largely continue to remain in the Salt Lake Valley. And this remains our predicament today.


Big industrial polluters are located west and north of the Salt Lake County line. From where I live, I can literally see the air pollution out my front door. Unfortunately, the Utah Department of Air Quality continues to hand out more expansion mining permits (such as Holly Refinery) outside county line, while still very much in the same air shed, and this also includes the dreaded expansion of Kennecott’s Copper Mine. I admit that by outside appearance, Rio Tinto (the London based group who owns Kennecott) is working diligently to alter their operations (as well as their reputation) to reduce toxic emissions and pollute less. They are also big players in our community, donating funds and allowing their name to be synonymous with children’s museums, parks and environmental efforts.

However, despite vows to pollute less, expansion (along with the other refineries) will undoubtedly result in more toxic emissions in our air, water, crops…and in our children. While I commend Rio Tinto’s efforts in “cleaning up the environment,” it is not enough. If BIG industry wants to operate in our community while sending BIG profits elsewhere, then let’s play fair. We live in a geographically unique place. Thus, the environment is even more fragile.


These industries obviously don’t want to go anywhere. As refineries continue to spew toxic SO2, NO2, arsenic and lead (to name a few) into our environment and into the the air Utah’s families breathe, will we need to fight harder like the small group of agriculturalists who fought industrial polluters a hundred years ago for our right to clean air?


TOPICS: Activism, Coal, Pollution, Toxics, Utah