A rite of passage gone: COVID-19 leaves high school seniors up in the air  

Timpview High School Senior Class of 2020. Photo courtesy of Sommer Cattani.

Story by IVANA MARTINEZ

Hundreds of schools around the nation — from K-12 to universities — have closed doors in recent weeks due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. In Utah, the “soft closure” for K-12 schools has been extended to May 1.

For many high school seniors, the uncertainty of the pandemic

means the prospect of returning to school remains up in the air. School activities such as sports, alongside the traditional senior year festivities — senior “assassination,” prom and possibly graduation — have been put on hold.

“These are unprecedented times in Utah’s and our nation’s history,” Gov. Gary Herbert said in a March 23 statement.

“I have been overwhelmed with Utahns’ outpouring of support for one another, and nowhere has this been more evident than in the way our educators are supporting Utah students and families,” Herbert said.  

The closure was extended in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in public schools and limit gatherings of 10 people or more. Several in-state universities and colleges have postponed or canceled graduation ceremonies.   

Photo courtesy of Sommer Cattani.

Sommer Cattani, a senior at Timpview High School in Provo, said she was experiencing the worst case of “senioritis” prior to the pandemic. She never had anticipated any of this happening and it was a little bit disappointing for her.  

“I hated going to school, but now that I can’t, I really want to,” Cattani said in a phone interview. 

For most seniors, spring semester is a time of transition to celebrate and prepare for secondary education. Graduation for many is considered a rite of passage to commemorate the last 12 years of education. 

“A lot of people are acting like high school is kind of done for me, like I’m probably not going to go back. Which is just weird, so it kind of feels unfinished,” Cattani said.

Cattani said her online classes have easily transitioned since her school had the “soft closure.” However, COVID-19 has affected her decision to attend universities out of state, since most have shut down for the semester. After high school, Cattani was planning to study hospitality and tourism. Now it seems uncertain.  

She had planned to tour the Brigham Young University-Hawaii campus over spring break to see if tourism was actually something she’d like to academically pursue. She said it wouldn’t be smart to go to BYU-Hawaii without touring the campus. 

“I’m in this weird limbo phase. Hawaii has a really good hospitality and tourism department and I’m not sure if I would want to study that somewhere else,” Cattani said. “So it’s just kind of like oh, I don’t really know what my future holds anymore.”   

Sean Edwards, assistant principal of Timpview High School, said the district’s focus at the moment is to effectively transition classes to a distance learning model. The district will then focus on assisting seniors through this transition to post-secondary education. 

“I think that is key for continuing the learning experiences if we were to extend the closure or the dismissal,” Edwards said in a phone interview. 

“Making sure that, you know, we have a solid and coherent plan with our school counselors, with our college and career access advisor and just making sure we are pushing communication out.  We’re doing a lot of proactive reaching out to students and parents,” he said. 

Hailey Giles, another Timpview senior, spoke about her experience during this time. She said it has been a “pretty smooth transition” for her because she is used to working on Canvas Instructure. Canvas is an educational technology company based in Salt Lake City.

Giles said in a phone call that she’d dropped one of her advanced placement classes, because it wasn’t pivotal to her graduation and she wasn’t planning on taking the test. But the real impact she’s felt is the loss of senior activities, like hanging out with her friends and specifically spring sports such as golf. 

“The fear that we’ll miss out on our senior experience, and especially I play a spring sport,” Giles said. “So this was my year, I finally made varsity and we’re set to win state. And so that was just big, like knowing that I won’t be able to play that sport for the spring season.” 

Both Giles and Cattani made it clear that they understand the seriousness of the pandemic and the measures the school administration is taking to protect them. Giles hopes that once school starts she may have a chance to play golf in the summer to make up for the spring session.  

As of March 23, assistant principal Edwards said the administration’s focus is on getting the transition right. He mentioned conversations relating to senior activities will happen later when the school has a better idea of how long the extension will be. 

The school is continuing to plan for graduation as it’s normally scheduled. For now, many students are working from home waiting to hear what may come in the following months as this pandemic continues.

Mosquito Abatement District helps prevent the West Nile Virus in Salt Lake City

Story and photos by CHEYENNE PETERSON

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), West Nile Virus is the leading cause of mosquito-borne disease in the continental United States. 

West Nile Virus was introduced to the U.S. in 1999 and to Utah in 2003, said Greg White, the assistant director at the Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District.

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Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District located at 2215 N. 2200 West.

Since 1924, the SLCMAD, located at 2215 N. 2200 West, has had a group of specialists working on keeping mosquitoes controlled in the Salt Lake area. The principal focus is on population control and limiting the spread of the West Nile Virus. 

The CDC states that the West Nile Virus often begins with a bite from an infected mosquito. Mosquito season begins in summer and ends in fall. 

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SLCMAD lab.

“We feel like we do make an impact on the West Nile Virus. We take samples of mosquitoes for [it] specifically so that we find out if they are positive for the West Nile Virus. Then we will increase control in specific areas to try to interrupt the disease transmission,” White said. 

Every year, Utah has a large amount of mosquitos and these mosquitoes tend to gravitate to areas with stagnant water. In residential areas, culex pipiens mosquitoes are very common. These mosquitoes are the specific kind that transmit the West Nile Virus and can be a nuisance at times.  

“We don’t have as much water as the midwest like Minnesota and New Jersey, but we do get all of the water runoff from the mountains that we have. That goes straight down through the Salt Lake and as it gets closer everything stops flowing so good and the water starts to get stagnant,” White said.

The Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District provides an Urban Field Operation. There are three different services available within it, but one is critical to managing the West Nile Virus. Greg White calls this service “the bicycle program.” 

The bicycle program was created by the SLCMAD to keep the pesky mosquitoes out of the city.

“We will drop some people off with bikes and they will do their routes down the residential areas of Salt Lake City. They will look for places with standing water, like drains that don’t drain properly and storm water inlets,” White said.

The program consists of four bicyclists. Each has a few disposable pockets of biopesticides that resemble Tide laundry detergent pods. They keep these pods in a pouch located on the back of their bike. When riding their bikes through residential areas and standing water is observed, they throw the pods in the stagnant water. Each treatment lasts for three to four weeks each time.   

According to the Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement Center’s website, the biopesticides are “surface agents such as refined mineral oils or monomolecular films spread across the surface of the water to prevent mosquitoes from breathing. Mosquito larvae and pupae breathe through tubes called siphons that extend above the water surface.”

Cindy Oliver was diagnosed with West Nile Virus in September 2006.

“At that time there were a few cases and it was getting in the news that there was a West Nile Virus going around. In that year there were 131 cases in Utah,” said Glenn Oliver, Cindy’s husband, in a phone interview. 

According to the CDC, most people infected with West Nile Virus do not feel sick. About one in five people who are infected develop a fever and other symptoms. About one out of 150 infected people develop a serious, sometimes fatal, illness. 

Cindy said she had a headache and didn’t feel well. She thought she had a sinus infection, but it lasted for about five days.

Next, Glenn said, doctors thought she had meningitis.

Eventually they determined it was the West Nile Virus.

“She had to learn how to walk on her own again. Learn her motor skills all over again. So she couldn’t walk, talk, or do anything. She was completely wiped out of abilities,” Glenn said. 

Cindy said she spent four months recovering in hospitals. It has taken an additional 10 years of physical, occupational, and speech therapy in her home. 

“Doctors were amazed how well she has recovered, because we were expecting it to be worse,” Glenn said.

According to Cindy, “Support from family, getting better from doctors, and my faith” are the reasons why she recovered from the West Nile Virus.

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Greg White shows a visitor mosquitoes of different ages and sizes at the SLCMAD.

The Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District recommends being aware of mosquitoes in the area and to report them. Its funding is from a small portion of the Salt Lake area property taxes. After that there is no additional cost for using the services.

The CDC website suggests, “You can reduce your risk of West Nile Virus by using insect repellent and wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants to prevent mosquito bites.”

White said, “If people have a mosquito problem in their area, we will come out, check it out and give them treatment, inspections and everything with no cost.”

Delinquents: How the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Salt Lake are redirecting today’s youth to constructive after-school activities

Story by Ellie Cook

With working-class parents already struggling to make ends meet, there leaves no money left for ballet classes, soccer teams, or any other after-school activities for their children. As a result, kids are responsible for finding their own ways of entertainment. Over the last few years, the western area of Salt Lake City has seen a growth in children using the time between the end of school and when their guardians return from work in a less productive way than one would hope. 

The Utah advocacy group, Choose Gang Free, stated, “Too much free time can sometimes be dangerous and trouble can often follow.” The organization encourages parents to seek constructive and safe after-school options for their children.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of America recognizes the problem and has taken steps to assist in leading kids on a path to success by providing affordable care options and collaborating with local schools. 

The mission statement is, “To inspire and empower youth to realize their full potential as productive, responsible, and caring citizens.” Fortunately, The Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Salt Lake stays strong to their word! Certain locations, such as the Lied Center, put in extra precautions to ensure they can assist more vulnerable communities as best they can. 

The national website states, “Every day, 11.3 million youth leave school with no place to go. Clubs provide a safe place to play, grow and learn while empowering youth to excel in school, become good citizens and lead healthy, productive lives. Kids and teens who attend Boys & Girls Clubs perform better academically and are more likely to avoid risky behaviors and attend school consistently.”

Since 1860, club members have raved about their experiences.”The Boys and Girls Clubs offer a safe and accepting place for all youth to come together and participate in fun activities. Also provided is homework help and mentorship for those who don’t have access to such services,” said former Lied Club member Natalie Clark, 22.”It’s a unique program serving much at-risk youth, such as myself throughout my adolescent and teenage development.” 

The clubs serve those in grades 1-12 and have two separate programs, the junior (grades 1-6) and teen (grades 7-12).

The programs are also well received by the staff. Lied Club Director Bethany Weller said in a phone interview, “I love seeing youth realize and reach their full potential!” She added, “We provide a safe place where youth have supportive adult relationships, participate in both fun activities and targeted programs, and are provided with opportunities and recognition.” 

Employees find joy in their ability to connect with the youth, and planning activities or attending some fun field trips with the kids. Many are able to connect with children on more personal levels, whether that means they communicate with a child in their first language (many staff members are bilingual) or reminisce on the past from when they were a club member themselves. However, clubs of all locations are always searching for more hands. “We are always looking for dedicated staff or volunteers that want to come in and connect with the youth and serve them along with the staff,” Weller said.

The club itself has one flat fee of $20 a year. However, accommodations may be made if finances are an issue. The club has also teamed up with nearby schools to provide students with bus transportation and escorts to their locations. “It is difficult for parents who are working at the same time that school releases to pick up their kid and/or they don’t want their kid(s) going home alone for hours until they are home from work,” Weller explained. “By picking club members up and bringing them to the club until their parents can pick them up gives parents the peace of mind that their kid is safe and engaging in fun activities.” 

The Lied Club also offers the Kids’ Cafe, which provides dinner to club members and their families on weeknights. There are summer and fall options, all welcome to anyone. Visit the website to learn more or enroll your child in one of the many clubs located in Salt Lake City.

NOTE: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the after-school clubs will remain closed until further notice. The public is encouraged to visit the website for updates. 

 

 

Mental health service access is limited in Salt Lake’s west side 

Story and photos by JACOB RUEDA

Residents in Salt Lake City’s west side face a lack of access to mental health and drug rehabilitation services. The area’s poverty level could affect residents’ access to care, although the immediate causal factor is undetermined. Other issues such as cost of treatment or zoning could explain why the area has an insufficient number of resources available. 

The Salt Lake County Health Department website says the county provides substance abuse prevention services through “community-based providers” by distributing information regarding drug abuse and prevention. However, the county itself does not provide treatment.

Child and Family Empowerment Services, at 1578 W. 1700 South, Suite 200, is one of the few mental health clinics in Salt Lake City’s west side.

Humberto Franco works at Social Model Recovery Systems, a nonprofit treatment facility in Los Angeles. Franco, a licensed professional in the healing arts, previously worked for a community-based health organization helping addicts in one of the poorest areas of the city. He says the cost of rehabilitation can impact access to it, especially in lower-income areas. But even with greater access, Franco says getting and maintaining qualified staff is a challenge facing treatment centers all around.

“People need to get that background in addiction and not only in psychology” in order for facilities to properly focus on treatment and rehabilitation, Franco says. Certifying and educating staff costs money, which raises the cost of services. With mental health and substance abuse issues becoming more prevalent, government has stepped in to help facilities in their treatment and rehabilitation efforts.

In September 2019, the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration awarded each state $932 million to combat the opioid crisis. It was part of a $2 billion grant from the Trump Administration. 

Aaron, who asked not to be identified because he’s in recovery, says politicians are more in tune with the needs of recovery and mental health than one might think.

“There’s a lot of people lobbying for recovery,” he says. “There’s a lot of representatives that donate their time and effort into working with the recovery community.” During the Rally for Recovery that took place Feb. 21, 2020, at the Utah State Capitol, Aaron heard politicians address the issue of access to mental health and substance abuse care.

Despite government efforts to help centers through funding and initiatives, other financial and socioeconomic factors can affect access to care in low-income areas like Salt Lake City’s west side. When government does not provide, the burden of responsibility falls on a nonprofit group or private organization. 

“A lot of these programs here in Salt Lake City in particular, most of them are privately funded,” Aaron says. Rehabilitation programs can cost $5,000 a month to start. At such prices, individuals in low-income areas may find it difficult to afford treatment. Certifying and maintaining staff aside, rents and property taxes affect the overall price as well. Since taxes are higher in commercial and industrial areas, finding where to establish a treatment facility becomes crucial.

The abandoned Raging Waters Park is a few blocks east of Child and Family Empowerment Services in Glendale. The area is one of the few residential spots in Salt Lake City’s west side.

Salt Lake City’s west side has more industrial and commercial areas than residential, particularly west of Redwood Road. Aaron says his recovery began in a wilderness rehabilitation program for substance abuse. Centers for recovery are usually established in areas that are conducive to well-being. Industrial areas do not serve that purpose. Factors that go beyond zoning can affect access to treatment on the city’s west side.

Leilani Taholo, a researcher and licensed clinical social worker with Child and Family Empowerment Services, says the problem is more complex. She has worked in the field for 37 years developing culturally sensitive programs. She initially designed a trauma intervention program called “Kaimani,” which means “divine power from the wave or the ocean.”

Child and Family Empowerment Services is located in Glendale and is one of the areas in Salt Lake City’s west side where mental health services are readily available.

Her office is located in Glendale and is one of the few centers located on the west side. It provides mental health services through the county’s OPTUM program, which accepts Medicaid and is funded at the state and federal levels.

A lack of overall funding combined with adverse socioeconomic conditions make it difficult for public or private centers to establish themselves in west-side neighborhoods like Rose Park and Glendale, Taholo says.

“I’ve spoken with many colleagues who have said, ‘I’m not sure if I want to put my clinic in Rose Park or in the Glendale area,’” she says. Taholo says her colleagues believe their clients feel safer getting treatment at their east side facilities.

Heads of families in west-side neighborhoods tend to work more than one job to make ends meet. Going to a center at night might leave them susceptible to harm or criminal activity.

Combined statistics from the Salt Lake Police Department for January 2020 show a slight increase in crime activity in District 2 compared with District 1. District 2 starts at Interstate 15 and ends at around 8000 West and goes from Interstate 80 to 2100 South. District 1 goes from I-80 to roughly 2700 North and 900 West to about 8500 West.

Taholo says that despite the perceptions of the west side as being crime ridden, the on-campus shooting deaths of two University of Utah students in 2017 and 2018 refute the idea that crime is strictly a west-side problem.

Regardless of the situation, people from around the west side come to Taholo’s center for help. She says she is amazed at the resilience not just of her clients but the people in the area. “They have taken the few resources that they have,” she says, “and they make it last in ways that you and I would never come up with.”

Residents of Salt Lake’s west side say new dog park will benefit all

Story and photo by CASSANDRA ROSENKRANTZ

Take a moment to think about all the different spaces you go to meet people. In regards to the west side of Salt Lake City, some wonderful places come to mind. Libraries, schools and public centers are among the great places to eat, relieve stress and explore with neighbors.

Our pets, on the other hand, don’t have the same opportunities. They get locked up inside, taken on the shortest of walks and don’t always have enough space to run around. Enter the dog park. This sounds ideal, but dog parks can be hard to find on the west side.

Ray Parker, a manager at Dogs All Day SLC in the Ball Park neighborhood of Salt Lake City, said he has not seen any particularly large dog parks in the area. “That alone is a sign that something needs to happen in order for a dog’s level of happiness to be improved,” he said.

“Salt Lake City is such a big, cramped city — it is challenging to give a dog enough exercise in this environment. Plus, there are so many stress-inducing factors that cause anxiety in dogs. They need a place to cool down and hang with other pups,” he said.

Parker believes that both families and dogs can benefit from a neighborhood dog park that checks all the boxes. It’s much more than just a regular park — it is a place where people can relax, enjoy being in the company of their dogs and share time with like-minded neighbors. 

The Utah Animal Adoption Center (UAAC) in Rose Park took an interest in this issue. In an email to Voices of Utah, the center emphasized the need for dogs to have plenty of room to exercise and socialize. “We have a 3.5-acre field near Jordan River Parkway,” the center explained. “Our dogs can get exercise, play with other dogs and have a space to relax out in the fresh air.” 

Residents on the west side have shared their opposition to the idea of larger dog parks because there are few empty lots where something of this size could fit. “So many new houses, apartment buildings and other structures are being built. No one wants a constant dog barking and children yelling outside their window,” the UAAC said in the email.

The UAAC said that other residents, though, have expressed concern about the cost. They believe the community council members would rather spend money on more significant projects in the neighborhood. The shelter reminds us that there are many considerations when building a park.

Dogs can enjoy many features in a space made just for them. Most parks have a shaded area where dogs and their owners can rest, as well as a specific place for smaller dogs where they can safely play away from the bigger dogs. 

Throw in areas with fresh, clean water to drink and a bathing station and mister to keep everyone cool and you have a recipe for a perfect place for adventure with your best pal.

Tiffany Laedrow, a resident in the Westpointe area, has a 2-year-old mixed breed dog named Baxter who gets walked almost every morning. “It would be great if we could have a park nearby that hosted events where we could meet other dogs and their owners,” she said.

Baxter taking a break from his walk in the Westpointe area.

Laedrow said other cities in Utah have group activities for dog owners every week. She said the Cottonwood Heights Dog Playgroup is one such group. It is comprised of community members with dogs who get together at a local dog park in their neighborhood. Laedrow wishes that the west side of Salt Lake City would offer something similar. 

In a later interview, Laedrow said she had noticed how the community dog meetings impacted the way high-energy Baxter acted throughout the day. “After attending two meetups, Baxter started to calm down when we were at home.” He used up most of his energy playing with other dogs at the park or on a group hike.

“I thought that Baxter was just a young dog with too much energy and that there was nothing I could do except wait until he grew out of it. I was shocked when I learned that he wasn’t the problem, but the problem was me,” Laedrow said. “I live in an apartment and don’t have the space for him to run around like he can when he is at the meetups with other dogs.”

Laedrow is planning to bring this matter up at a community meeting in April 2020 in the hopes of getting a group started on collecting donations to build a gathering place on the west side for dogs and their owners to get to know each other.

Ski programs molding better lives for those living in Salt Lake City’s west-side communities

Story by MARTIN KUPRIANOWICZ

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Children living on the west side of Salt Lake City enjoying the snow and cross-country skiing. Photo by Peter Vordenberg

It’s Saturday. The sun is shining and snow is on the ground. Parents are dropping their children off at Mountainview Elementary in Salt Lake City and the kids are already exploding with excitement — they are going on a field trip. Juan Gilberto Rejón — or “Coach Juan,” as those in west-side communities refer to him — is patiently waiting outside of the school to take roughly 50 elementary students to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge to view a population of wild eagles on this day.

Coach Juan is the founder, executive director, and coach for the Hartland Community 4 Youth & Families, which is a program that aims to create pathways to college for the underserved by getting students involved in the outdoors. Coach Juan started this program because he believes the experiences earned in the outdoors are valuable ones that can set children up to better handle adversity throughout their lives.

On weekends throughout the school year, Coach Juan often takes students on excursions to participate in a wide variety of outdoor activities, from bird watching to skiing. Recently, cross-country skiing has been a big emphasis of the program.

“It’s a blessing for our underserved and our underprivileged because they wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise. It’s too expensive,” Coach Juan said. “For a family of five or six to go skiing at $200 a pop, that’s already over $1,000 being spent for just a day of skiing. There’s just no way these families living in poverty could afford that.”

His ski program is partnered with the Utah Nordic Alliance that takes students cross-country skiing on weekends in the winter. Another partner is She Jumps, an organization that motivates women and girls of all backgrounds to step out of their comfort zone in a fun, non-threatening, inclusive environment to learn outdoor skills.

Coach Juan’s program has been operating for three years, but his inspiration to get students involved with the outdoors goes back almost two decades to the birth of his son.

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Coach Juan pictured outside of Mountainview Elementary, the meeting place for students going to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Photo by Martin Kuprianowicz

“When I first moved into a 300-bedroom apartment complex here (on the west side) there were a lot of things happening that were not safe for kids. We had a lot of robberies, carjackings, prostitution, drugs, alcohol, so as a community advocate I had to do something for my child,” Coach Juan said.

What began as a mission to improve the quality of life for his child then translated as improving the lives of everyone in his community, especially vulnerable children on the west side of Salt Lake City. Coach Juan started a community soccer program that would eventually grow into a multifaceted, multi-partnered community outdoor program for youth.

The program focuses on helping students to pursue higher education. Coach Juan’s son went through it. Now, his grandchildren are enrolled. Hartland Community 4 Youth & Families has since grown and is now partnered with the Utah Nordic Alliance, headed by former two-time Olympic ski racer Peter Vordenberg.

Vordenberg coaches ski racers who have won gold medals in the Winter Olympics and World Cup championships. In addition, he helps Coach Juan organize the single-day cross-country ski trips by providing students with everything they need to go skiing.

But he didn’t always plan to be a community advocate. It all started by chance one day when he was invited by a friend to tag along with the kids on one of these ski programs.

“I was out there hanging out with all the kids and with Coach Juan and I was like, ‘Oh man, I got to be more involved, not just take pictures but I got to see what I can do to help out.’ So, I joined the board,” Vordenberg said.

Vordenberg has been on the Hartland Community 4 Youth & Families board for three years. He says that his favorite thing about being involved with the program is watching the kids develop a love for skiing and the outdoors. “It really builds their confidence and helps them dream bigger,” Vordenberg said.

Another opportunity for the west-side youth is the Parks and Recreation program that is affiliated with world-class ski areas Brighton and Snowbird. The Northwest Recreation Center is one of many centers throughout the Salt Lake Valley  that shuttle elementary and middle school students to those ski areas and provide them with gear, lift passes, and instructor training.

Snowbird Mountain School Director Maggie Loring has run this program on Fridays in the winter for 18 seasons. She said programmatic goals include developing new skiers and riders who may be interested in one day working as staff at the resorts, and providing a community service to children who may not otherwise get the opportunity to enjoy winter sports.

“One anecdote I can share is that the current manager of our programs was initially in our 4th-grade program, became a junior instructor, and kept going. It’s really an opportunity for resorts to capture both new guests and new staff,” Loring said in an email interview.

However, the impact of these programs is also a lot simpler than getting kids involved with the outdoors and setting them up for potential life paths in the ski industry.

“One of my favorite things about this program is the opportunity to see the kids pour out of the buses so excited to get onto the mountain,” Loring said. “Many of them may not be able to sleep the night before because of how excited they are for this new adventure. I remember from my own childhood how excited I was to get out of school to go skiing!”

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It’s nothing but smiles when the kids get off the bus and go skiing. Photo by Peter Vordenberg

Utah’s air: Not good for what ails you

Inversion

Brace yourself — The inversion is coming. This is the text of a bumper sticker.

Story and photos by SARAH SAIDYKHAN

On July 24, 1847, Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers of what is now The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived on the outskirts of the Great Salt Lake Valley looking for a new place to corral their wagons and set up camp. The church’s archives state that as Young gazed over the vast and barren land sprawled out before him, he said, “This is the right place.”

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Salt Lake City.

Nowadays we know that what Brigham Young was looking at were massive mountain ranges surrounding a desert-valley landscape. This mountain range design creates a makeshift bowl that protects the valley from strong winds and other harsh elements. Along with adventurous recreation, the mountains assist in creating high- and low-pressure systems that trap toxic particulate matter in the air during winter inversions and smoke-filled haze pollution resulting from possible summertime fires.

Kellie McCleve lives in the southern end of the Salt Lake Valley and is a mom to five kids under the age of 14. From her home, she is able to see the smog pollution that covers the Valley. She said, “Sometimes the sky’s so gross you can’t see anything but like, a yucky, brownish haze. It covers the whole Valley.” McCleve said that when she takes her kids into the city, she has a mask for each of them to wear. “It’s so gross! We shouldn’t be breathing that in. No one should be breathing that in.”

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Light haze covering the Salt Lake Valley.

But every day, hundreds of thousands of people do breathe it in. McCleve said that when she moved, the inversions were something she could see from a distance. But now she knows her home was never actually immune. “I worry because when we moved out of the city, I really thought we escaped it, we didn’t. We just see it now from a distance. It’s always around us but it’s worse down in the Valley.” McCleve believes that no one person can fix the depleted air quality and for now, she continually looks for ways to lower her carbon footprint saying, “We’re all responsible for the problem and that means, we’re all responsible for cleaning it up. If we don’t, we’re all in trouble.”

Today, Utah is home to over three million people and the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute projects that by 2065, Utah will be home to roughly six million people. Even as the state grows more diverse, there is still an environmental justice divide visible in the Valley.

The east side houses a predominantly white population. One can usually find new and remodeled schools and readily available public transportation. There are pricey coffee shops every few blocks and multiple grocery stores within walking distance where residents can purchase organic, fresh fruits and vegetables. The east side of the Valley also sits at a higher elevation and in a way, overlooks the west side. But even at higher elevations, the air is still filling with particulate matter from emissions, just not at the same levels as what accumulates in the air down on the Valley floor.

West Side Industry

Westside industry.

The west side of the Valley houses a large majority of Utah’s lower-income families. There’s more diversity in the communities and predominantly, most people of color live on the Valley’s west side. Grocery stores are spread miles apart from residents, creating food deserts, and there’s a significant lack of public transportation. Instead of coffee shops and farmers markets littered throughout the neighborhoods, there are factories, refineries and major transportation, and trucking hubs all contributing to the air quality.

With the depleted air quality in the Valley, who is affected the most? Anthony Sudweeks is one of the principals at Wallace Stegner Academy (WSA), located on Bending River Road on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. The school offers a free, college preparatory education for grades K-8. With over 600 students, the majority of kids attending WSA are Hispanic, students of color and/or from low-income families who reside in the neighborhoods surrounding the school.

Sudweeks said he is asked by parents frequently, “Can you keep all the kids inside for indoor activities?” As much as he wishes that were possible, it’s not a reality. A few days of inside play are OK, but kids need to run and expel their energy so they can pay attention and learn while the teacher is instructing. Instead of packing hundreds of energy-filled kids in a crowded lunchroom like sardines in a can, the school adheres to strict guidelines on how the red, orange and yellow days are handled.

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A “green day” in Utah.

Sudweeks said, “On red days, no kids play outside. On orange and yellow days, students with asthma or heart conditions, who have to have a doctor’s form filled out, don’t go outside.”

The school uses one of the state’s outdoor air quality monitoring websites to decide who or if any students go outside during the orange and yellow days. “There are air testing monitors that the state funds all over the place,” Sudweeks said. “There’s one about two blocks from here.” He and the other employees at WSA are vigilant in making sure that the kids are not outside when the inversions are happening and when the air quality monitors show that any unnecessary exposure to the air would not be safe.

WSA checks the air quality website multiple times daily because, even though the weather is not the culprit, the pressure systems may change from morning to afternoon. But Sudweeks said, “It’s not really dependent on the weather. High- and low-pressure fronts can change it, but the air quality’s not very unpredictable. It’s predictable. In the morning we know what it’s going to be like in the afternoon, it doesn’t randomly change. It doesn’t predict green and turn into a red.”

Sudweeks did say that during the winter inversions the forecast will sometimes show a yellow day in the morning, but by the afternoon it will have turned into a red day. Those days, he said, “It’s a constant check, constant.”

An inversion builds, trapping pollution.

The area of WSA is surrounded by four major freeways. Sudweeks explained that the neighborhoods around the school are some of the worst polluted spots in the state when it comes to bad air quality. So, why knowingly put a school in an area that suffers from some of the most polluted air in the state? “Because this is where our students live,” Sudweeks said. “This is Glendale, and most of our students live in Glendale. If we moved the school somewhere else, what we’d be saying is, these kids don’t deserve a good charter school.” Glendale is a suburb of Salt Lake City and according to Statistic Atlas, roughly 40 percent of the population living there is Hispanic.

Sudweeks quickly affirmed, “This is their neighborhood and these kids absolutely deserve to have a great school in their own neighborhood.” He said that one of the reasons why the school’s location was decided was “to make sure that the kids living in some of the most polluted and lower-income parts of the city still have access to the best education possible.”

Sudweeks explained the environmental justice issues the school and area are facing. “It’s a nationwide phenomenon where the lower the income neighborhoods are, the more likely they are to live in bad air quality. Nearer to freeways and industrial areas.” He said that’s also particularly true in Utah. The area is economically growing and with that growth brings large diesel-fueled trucks, more traffic, congestion and, overall increased pollution.

Winter Smog

Eastside winter smog — University of Utah’s family housing.

Sudweeks also ran for state legislature in 2018. One of his platforms was Utah’s air quality, more specifically, the air quality monitors and their need to be updated. He said, “They need about $3 million invested into them because they’re falling apart. The session before the last, they voted to not put any money into them and this last session they put $1 million. But they are in desperate need of upgrades on the monitors themselves.”

Sudweeks said he feels like the majority of the legislature just doesn’t care because it would mean truly facing the air pollution problem. “They just pretend like it’s an issue we have no control over, which is not true.” Sudweeks said the state could completely move to Tier 3 fuel, which is low in sulfur and according to the EPA, reduces carbon dioxide emissions into the air.

Sudweeks said the state is also needing a revamp of the public transit system to meet the needs of the people. “Buses don’t get people on public transits, trains do,” he said. “We’re a big enough county where we could justify a large investment into public transits. Because of our air quality needs, we have no business not investing heavily in public transits.” Sudweeks referenced the recent legislature and said, “No money for public transit, but a lot of money for widening and expanding roads.”

He said Utah’s inversions give residents a false sense of security in believing the air is only bad when inversions are happening. A large study by Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health agrees. The study found that EPA standards may not be strict enough in preventing premature deaths from air pollution. The research showed that if particle pollutions in the air could be lowered by roughly 10 percent, the death rates of people 65 and older would be lowered, possibly saving 7,000 to 10,000 lives each year.

Hazy City

Haze building over the Salt Lake Valley.

Improvements to the air quality in Utah have been made over the years. Technological advancements created cars that run on natural gas and batteries. Electric vehicles, trains and buses are carrying more people around the Salt Lake Valley, reducing the need to get in a gas-operated vehicle for a quick drive to the store. More homes are being powered through renewable solar energy, and in general, more people are aware of the issues of air pollution and what contributes to it. Still, with all the improvements, there is a visible racial divide when it comes to air we breathe.

Rep. Angela Romero represents Salt Lake Valley’s House District 26. She is also one of the many advocates fighting for clean air in Utah. Of the roughly 39,000 people living in her district, almost 60 percent are Hispanic and people of color.

Romero said in a phone interview that when the topic of air pollution comes up, people have to realize there’s more to it than just air pollution. “There’s an environmental justice concern for those affected the most.” The EPA recognizes environmental justice as the fair treatment of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, and income with regard to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulation, and policies. This means that every person living has a right to a fair and meaningful life and protection from environmental and health hazards. This is not the case for hundreds of thousands of people living in the most polluted parts of the Valley bowl.

Romero said, “Most working-class communities and communities of color, live in areas that are more industrial, so they’re going to be exposed to more toxins in the air than others.” She and her colleagues are looking at the intersectionality of all issues facing people of color and marginalized communities. “We’re not looking at how they collide and how they displace people, it’s how they all work together,” Romero said.

As the Valley becomes denser in population, Utahns must continue being vigilant in finding and implementing ways to stay ahead of the added pollution. Romero said, “It’s kind of hard for us to solve the problem if we’re not coming up with innovative ways to address it [air pollution].”

Public Transportation

Riding public transit lowers dependence on fossil fuels.

Cleaning up the air is not a one-person job. It’s everyone’s job to work together to make it better. Romero said that a lot of time people want to put all the blame on industry and other heavy air polluters. But, she said, “We don’t look at ourselves and what small things we can do when we’re looking at air quality and energy. How do we play a role in that? What are some practices that we can change in our own lives?”

Romero said she’d like to see the state focus on using more renewable energy sources like adding roof-top solar panels to all state-run buildings and offering higher discounts to homes using solar panels. Businesses and homes can also update their heating and air-conditioning units to function more efficiently. Romero said it comes down to all residents making the commitment to change the habits that are contributing to the depleted air quality.

Utah has over 200 sunny days a year. Roof-top solar is an important investment for Utah’s future economy. More importantly, using a 100 percent renewable and clean energy source can help to improve the long-term health of all residents.

In the Salt Lake Valley’s mountain landscape environment, there will always be air pollution concerns. “We have inversions,” Romero said, “and they’re never going to go away, but what can we do to be more proactive, so we don’t make them worse?” Romero said that people can make little changes like taking public transit. Even though it may take a bit longer to get somewhere, plan for it and make it part of the routine. Walk or ride a bike if only going short distances and carpool whenever possible. The more we drive, the more we’re creating dirtier air with our cars. Romero said, “Getting people out of their vehicles and onto public transportation is a great way to start.”

Bikes are readily available around the city.

About the future of Utah’s air quality, Romero said, “We’re trying to be more proactive. We’re looking at inversions and air quality and we’re looking at it more from a public health perspective.” She also said, “If we truly want to change the route we’re going, we have to reevaluate systems that are in current existence. It’s not only about communities of color and marginalized communities. It’s about us as an entire community.”

Romero said all it takes are small changes in everyday routines to help improve air quality. Any day is a great day, to start a new and healthy habit.

To make improvements to Utah’s air quality, follow the CLEAN AIR plan:

C: Carpool whenever possible
L: Limit cold starts on cars and combine trips
E: Engage in clean air advocacy
A: Access public transportation
N: Navigate smog ratings and engine types
A: Avoid unnecessary commutes
I: Idle less or not at all
R: Ride a bike or walk when possible

To learn more ways to help clean up Utah’s air, visit the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, Utah Department of Health, or Air Now.

 

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