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An Interview with Mayor Mendenhall On Air Quality

The following is our interview with Mayor Erin Mendenhall regarding Salt Lake air quality issues. This is part of our Elephant in the City series exploring the funny, awkward and serious questions about living in Salt Lake.

What is your professional background with the air quality issue?

In 2009, I co-founded a nonprofit, Breathe Utah, which works to improve the air we breathe through education, collaboration, and policy. To date, Breathe Utah has educated over 80,000 students in grades pre-K through 12th in schools throughout the state about air quality science, health impacts, and what we can do to improve our air. As the policy director for Breathe Utah, I worked with Republican and Democrat state lawmakers to improve state legislation regarding air quality. We were successful in expanding the state’s core curriculum to include air quality science and driving impacts in drivers’ education, among other gains. I was appointed to serve on our state’s Air Quality Board in 2014 and became its chair in 2018. While I was on the City Council, I took many steps to improve our air through city investment, policy and priority.

Expanding bus routes has given Salt Lake City residents a less expensive option for getting out of their cars and around the city. As part of that expansion, we also tried to make the system more geographically equitable. We’ve also worked to bolster our unique system of bike and pedestrian trails in order to offer residents more access to outdoor opportunities, and help be a part of solutions that clean our air, support adjacent businesses, and save on resident’s transportation costs. I’ll be working to transition traditional-fuel busses in our city to new electric motor busses.

In my experience on the Council, we worked annually with the Urban Forestry division to ensure it had sufficient funding to at least replace all dead and dying trees. Today I am working to increase our annual planting by 1,000 trees, focusing on our city’s west side neighborhoods.

And just  a few years ago, the City renegotiated its contract with Rocky Mountain Power from 25 years to five years, to create an opportunity for us to better and more regularly negotiate for a faster transition to 100 percent renewable sources.

What would you tell a friend who was thinking about moving to SLC and had concerns about the air quality? 

I would tell my friend that air quality and climate change are absolutely existential threats to our city, but our ability to change the way things are is only as strong as the voices we have speaking out with us. Unfortunately, these issues are not unique to Salt Lake City. It reflects a new reality for so many cities.

The commitment and momentum to tackling these issues in our city is palpable. As mayor, I am doing everything I can to create more opportunities for our city to work toward cleaner air and I am optimistic about the progress we can make together. I would encourage people to join me and the diverse stakeholders in our city who are working both personally and professionally to find creative solutions for reducing our carbon footprint. We need more voices helping broaden the statewide conversation and more stakeholders invested in these issues.

Where would you direct residents to get accurate information about this issue?

There are so many great resources where you can get reliable information about air quality. I may be biased, but I believe that Breathe Utah is a great place to start! UCAIR, HEAL Utah, Utah Clean Energy, and Utah Clean Cities Coalition are a few other incredible local resources.

What is one action (or the top three actions) you wish every resident of Salt Lake would take to improve our air?

I wish that every resident of Salt Lake City would consider greener transportation options, such as electric vehicles, public transportation, biking, walking, and even just limiting the trips we take. I also recognize that, as a city, we need to invest in making these transportation options more convenient, affordable and safe for residents, and in my first 100 days as mayor we are taking many steps to make that happen.

I’m also looking for what we can do to draw down the carbon that is already in our environment and there are many ways people can play a key role there, from planting more trees on their property, to looking at the types of grasses and plants they are using.

Also, talk to your employer about what their red air day plan is and how employees can help by working together to reduce emissions.

What emission steps do you take on low-quality air days and/or how have you adjusted your lifestyle?

We make decisions every day that impact our environmental footprint. To reduce my own emissions my family drives an electric and a hybrid vehicle, I bike, or I take the bus. I have also adopted sustainable practices in my home, such as canning my own food, gardening, and sewing to repair items and extend their useful life. Some studies have shown benefits to indoor air quality from certain houseplants. I love plants in my home and office for air and mood benefits.

Has your opinion on this subject changed over time?

As a child in Illinois, my father would play in fields dusted with DDT, an insecticide that has since been linked to some forms of cancer.

It wasn’t until many years later that I began to understand how environmental policies – and the lack thereof – shaped his life and the lives of so many others. This was the first step in my path toward air quality work and environmental stewardship.

My passion for air quality became even more personal when my first child was born during an inversion and I learned that the cumulative lifetime impact of Salt Lake City’s air pollution could take two years off his life. It was hard not to consider moving to a city with cleaner air, but I wasn’t ready to leave the city I love. I decided to stay and fight for our community and have since dedicated my life to making this city better for everyone who breathes its air. Through my advocacy and political work, my beliefs about the importance of this issue have only grown stronger.

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