Modern observers of the debate over air quality in Utah may be surprised to learn that the debate began in earnest almost 150 years ago. The earliest settlers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Salt Lake Valley after the 1847 migration heated their homes with wood fires, creating clouds of blue smoke that would linger in the air for days. By the 1880s, coal came into widespread use in both residential and commercial settings. The inefficient methods of coal combustion produced dense clouds of black smoke that quickly became a target of public indignation. In 1891 Salt Lake City enacted its first air quality regulations, requiring that devices be attached to furnaces to capture the smoke before it could be emitted into the air, and issuing fines for polluters. Still, even with further municipal regulations and an important federal court decision protecting farmers from the pollutants emitted by industrial facilities, air quality remained a major concern and was taken up with new energy after World War I. The first major air quality study in U.S. history was conducted between 1919 and 1926 by the City of Salt Lake, the University of Utah, and the federal Bureau of Mines. Major contributions to the scientific understanding of air pollution notwithstanding, interwar “smoke abatement” efforts failed to achieve a substantial improvement in air quality.
It was not until after World War II that coal usage in the city began to decline, but by then there were new sources of pollution—automobiles. Natural gas had been introduced to northern Utah in 1930 and presented as a cleaner fuel than coal, and despite an uptick in emissions during the 1940s as a result of industrial mobilization for the war, by 1950 natural gas was on it's way to replacing coal as the primary fuel used in the area. Meanwhile, however, the rapid increase in car ownership and the lack of regulations governing vehicle emissions meant that the issue of air quality never disappeared. The legislature ordered a major study in 1962 and created the Air Conservation Committee within the State Department of Health in 1967, the first statewide regulatory agency devoted to air quality (which is today the Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ)). Then in 1970 the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency heralded the beginning of federal air quality regulation and the modern regulatory framework concerning pollution. Since then, despite continued public concern and ongoing state-level actions designed to combat pollution, Utah has struggled to meet federal air quality standards. Prospects for air quality improvement in the twenty-first century are nevertheless hopeful, however, with technological innovations in energy and transportation making possible a cleaner future.