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‘Not much time left’: Salt Lake City’s mayor on the Great Lake drying up

Erin Mendenhall was once an environmental activist, campaigning for clean air. Now, in a fitting but grim twist, she is the mayor of a fast-growing US city that faces being enveloped by a huge toxic cloud of dust.

Mendenhall, who is 42, became animated by the issue of air pollution after learning that the air quality in Salt Lake City had become so bad from cars, trucks and industry that it could take two years off the life of her newborn son. In 2010, she co-founded a non-profit group, called Breathe Utah, before embarking upon a political career that saw her become Salt Lake City’s mayor in 2020. “I had to do something [about the air pollution] or move,” she says.

But her city has now been thrust to the precipice of what Ben Abbott, an ecologist at the local Brigham Young University, calls “one of the worst environmental disasters in modern US history”, with the rapidly shrinking Great Salt Lake, just a short distance from the city, leaving behind a lakebed laced with arsenic, mercury and other toxins. The wind is already beginning to pick up these toxins in airborne…

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