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KSL Investigates: Which new schools may be putting students in ‘smog zone’

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah is known for having some of the worst air in the country at times, and that bad air can be especially bad for kids.

For the past seven years, the Environmental Protection Agency has warned schools nationwide about the dangers of building near busy roads. How many new schools in Utah have been built since then? KSL investigated local schools located in areas that could be putting kids’ health at risk.

Traffic is one of the most known sources of air pollution both inside and outside of schools. It’s a fact that Cherise Udell is very aware of. She’s the president of Utah Moms for Clean Air.

“Air pollution has actually been shown to diminish IQ,” said Udell. “Why would you want to put a school, the minute (students) walk in the door, they’re already impaired?”

Many studies show pollution is higher near busy roads and can harm a child’s ability to learn. But research also suggests what is spewed out of tailpipes can also stunt lung growth, trigger asthma attacks, contribute to heart disease and raise the risk of cancer.

Recognizing the risks, California banned new school construction within 500 feet of major roads in 2003.  It’s the only state in the country to do so.

“California is always on the forefront of environmental concerns and usually the rest of the nation ends up following suit,” said Udell. “So I imagine Utah will eventually do the same thing.”

The EPA hasn’t gone that far. However, it has warned school districts about traffic pollution impacts since at least 2011 and recommends that schools think carefully before building near major roads.

Mark Peterson with the Utah State Board of Education says schools do consider pollution when choosing a location to build.

“Air quality is one of the considerations and it is one specifically laid out in our construction manual that you will check with both the EPA and local health officials,” said Peterson.

But, there isn’t a law that says schools can’t be built near a major road, even though the EPA suggests school officials think carefully first.

With that in mind, KSL wanted to find out how many new schools were built near major roads even after the EPA’s recommendations.

KSL looked at three criteria:

  1. Schools built within the last 5 years
  2. Schools built within 500 feet of a busy road
  3. “Busy” defined as an average of 30,000 vehicles a day or 10,000 vehicles a day with at least 500 trucks

KSL collected data from the school board, analyzed traffic counts from the Utah Department of Transportation and visited more than a dozen schools to see if they fit the criteria. Eventually, we narrowed our list to six schools in Utah, all built in the last five years and all very near busy roads.

All turned out to be charter schools.

  1. Treeside Charter School in Provo
  2. Wallace Stegner Academy in Salt Lake City
  3. American International School of Utah in Murray
  4. Itineris Early College High School in West Jordan
  5. Providence Hall High School in Herriman
  6. GreenWood Charter School in Harrisville

Royce Van Tassell leads the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools. He says a big hurdle is what space is available.

“This is a challenge that every school faces,” said Van Tassell. “Charter schools are no different than any others.”

Van Tassell also says charter schools take the EPA’s guidelines into consideration but, “there is an element of what the ideal looks like and what is actually possible,” said Van Tassell. “There are only so many sites in a given city, for example, that are large enough to accommodate a school.”

Van Tassell says charter schools meet the same standards as district schools. But Peterson says there’s one difference.

“A district school can be zoned out of an area, but the legislature several years ago carved out an exception for charter schools that they are allowed in any zoning,” said Peterson.

Although the exception gives charter schools more options to build, Van Tassell says charter schools are doing what they can to ensure their students have the best environment for learning

“Every school is managing the risks,” said Van Tassell. “The health and safety is a critical part of every child’s education and schools, whether they’re district or charter, are working to make sure that students are getting the best education possible.”

KSL reached out to the cities where those six charter schools are located. Five out of the six are built where public schools could also be built.  The only exception was Wallace Stegner Academy in Salt Lake City. It’s located in a “light manufacturing” zone where public schools are not allowed.

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