Green River payments related to Utah inland port come under fire from critics

(Murice Miller | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) The welcome sign for Green River, Utah, on Nov. 25, 2020. Nearly 9,000 acres of private, state and federal land just west of Green River has been proposed as the site of a satellite inland port, which proponents say would attract warehouse, shipping and manufacturing facilities to Emery and Carbon counties.

At a special meeting of the Green River City Council in late October, Mayor Travis Bacon told his colleagues that he had “made a boo-boo.”

Bacon used the city checkbook to pay $17,000 to a company owned by his friend Scott Banasky — a Springville-based insurance salesman, entrepreneur, philanthropist and owner of a local hunting lodge — despite not having preapproved the deal with the City Council nor, Bacon said, having received invoices from Banasky.

“It looks very shady to be writing checks without invoices to a friend,” Councilman Bo Harrison told Bacon during the meeting, which grew heated at times as several council members expressed displeasure with the mayor’s actions.

Invoices obtained through a public records request, which are dated before the special meeting but were apparently unavailable to the council, show $12,000 was spent on safety vests promoting the city of Green River and on advertising at Banasky’s clay shooting course in town.

The other $5,000 was spent on what the invoice calls “The Inland Port Sporting Clay and Pheasant Hunt.” That event, which was held earlier this year, reportedly brought together an array of elected officials and business interests, some of whom see big economic development potential behind the proposal to create a satellite inland port on nearly 9,000 acres in Green River.

The smaller payment to Banasky covered a recreational outing for the attendees, including the cost of pheasant hunting guides, shotgun shells and birds purchased from a local farm. And Harrison questioned whether the hunt could be seen as “borderline bribery to take someone out and kind of schmooze them.”

“Isn’t that the point of this: to show them a good time?” he asked.

Bacon acknowledged the council’s frustrations with the process but defended the spending, stating that Banasky didn’t “make a red cent” from the deal and that the inland port hunt was held to advance the community’s interests. He added that business dealings with personal friends are difficult to avoid in a small town.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

(Harrison and Bacon did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.)

But the pheasant hunt, which wasn’t advertised as a public meeting, has stoked ongoing fears that conversations about a project with the potential to reshape the state and its economy are happening outside of public view. And the payments have come under fire not only from City Council members but also from inland port critics, who are concerned in general about the state’s plans for the inland port and about the Green River proposal in particular.

Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and a member of the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition, said she found the idea that local and state lawmakers were meeting with business interests and elected officials about the proposal in Green River “deeply troubling.”

“We don’t have any information about what’s intended” for the proposed site, she noted in an interview. “And then to hear that they’re going on an expensive pheasant shoot hunt to talk about all of this outside of — away from — public view, it’s just really appalling. And every taxpayer should question this on every level.”

‘Help Green River to grow’

Banasky, who grew up in Green River, defended the payments in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. He said that his hunting ranch is primarily used for $3,200-a-head, overnight charity events through a nonprofit he helped found called Heros Among Us (sic), which he said recently raised over $100,000 for Primary Children’s Hospital in Lehi.

He noted that he also uses fundraisers and other events at the ranch to showcase the city’s potential to business interests and decision-makers because he wants to help pull Green River from decades of financial doldrums and build a vibrant local economy.

“If Green River stays stagnant and does nothing, which a lot of people want it to do, then my ground is worth [its current value],” he said, adding that the hunting lodge is far less lucrative than his other business ventures. “But if I help Green River to grow ... by doing these things and this industry comes in, then my land becomes more valuable. Everybody in Green River will win, including me.”

The proposal for a satellite port in Green River is part of a vision for a statewide distribution hub that would make it easier for Utah’s imports and exports to clear international customs. The controversial Salt Lake City port, located on a large swath of land in the northwestern portion of the city, is a major component of that plan, along with a handful of smaller and yet-to-be-determined satellite sites spread across the state.

Altogether, the enterprise has been billed as Utah’s largest-ever economic development project.

(Murice Miller | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) The proposed 9,000-acre satellite inland port site begins just west of Green River and runs along I-70 and Highway 6 toward Price. November 25, 2020.

Emery is one of at least eight counties across the state that has signaled its desire to get in on the development, pointing to the Green River site’s access to the local airport, interstates and rail to make a case for locating a future port there.

Green River City Councilwoman Kathy Ryan said she sees the proposal as a “game changer” for the small Utah community, which has a population of less than 1,000 people.

“It could be very good for Green River plus surrounding counties way down here in southeastern Utah and bring some economics back,” she said in an interview. “I think the future will look brighter for probably the little communities that are here and really struggling.”

Emery County Commissioner Lynn Sitterud said that in addition to economic benefits for the region, a port in Green River would reduce truck traffic on Highway 6 between Green River and Spanish Fork, once known as Utah’s most dangerous highway, and it would mean less pollution from trucking along the Wasatch Front.

“If you look at the … eight or nine counties that have requested to be a satellite area,” he said, “Green River makes as much sense as any of them, if not more.”

He said the port would reduce traffic in the Salt Lake Valley by diverting goods on Interstate 70. And it would make it more feasible to bring manufacturing into Carbon, Grand and San Juan counties, Sitterud said, since export incentives would apply to a 50-mile radius.

The proposal “has not been a secret at all,” he added. “We’ve been down telling the businessmen and telling people in town, ‘This is what we’re trying to do for your town.’ We just haven’t had an open public meeting to invite everyone yet.”

Ginger Chinn, managing director of business development for the port authority, cautions that officials are still in the early days of understanding the movement of goods around the state and what transportation assets currently exist in different communities.

(Murice Miller | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Nearly 9,000 acres of private, state and federal land just west of Green River has been proposed as the site of a satellite inland port, which proponents say would attract warehouse, shipping and manufacturing facilities to Emery and Carbon counties. November 25, 2020.

At this point, there’s no clear timeline for when counties might be picked to host satellite ports, she said, nor is there a defined number for how many satellite ports the state might incentivize.

The meeting with elected officials in Green River was the second the port authority has had with businesses and elected officials to understand “the market case” for building satellite ports in different areas of the state. And the city was selected as the meeting location not because that proposal has higher interest than others, Chinn said, but because it’s more central to the San Juan and Carbon County areas, allowing for elected officials from different parts of the state to come together more easily.

“It was more of a regional approach,” she said.

During those meetings earlier this fall, Chinn said, the clay shooting offer was presented as an after-hours social event and that a handful of people who were staying in the area and weren’t heading back home accepted the offer.

“I didn’t see the activity as an inland port activity,” she said. “I thought it was more of a social activity after hours, didn’t think much about it, to be honest. I think we do activities like that all the time in relationship to business — I’m saying businesses in general — to do a golf outing or things like that.”

‘Environmental consequences’?

While officials in Green River see the satellite port as a way to cure their ailing economy, the proposal for an import and export hub there hasn’t been met with enthusiasm from opponents of the port project at large, who see that site as the most problematic of all those under consideration because of its size, proposed use of public land and ties to the fossil fuel industry.

The proposed satellite port in Green River is the largest of all the developments currently under consideration and has a footprint that’s more than half the size of the big port development planned for Salt Lake City. It would encompass 4,238 acres of public Bureau of Land Management land, as well as nearly 3,000 acres of School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration property, more than 1,600 acres of private land and 61 acres owned by Green River city.

Because Inland Port Authority leaders are in the early stages of choosing satellite ports, there have been relatively few details about what the Green River site, or any of the other projects, might look like if chosen. But at least four businesses are looking at bringing manufacturing to the area, Banasky said.

One of them is BPS Just Energy Technology, LLC, which is involved in manufacturing chemicals for the oil and gas and agricultural industries, among other products, like hand sanitizer. Larry Perkins, a Texas-based executive for the chemical manufacturing company, visited Green River earlier this year and went shooting at the town-owned range, according to a City Council meeting recording.

(Murice Miller | Special to The Salt Lake Tribune) A family shops for melons in Green River during a road trip from Idaho on Nov. 25, 2020. Emery County Commissioner Lynn Sitterud said the inland port would create more employment opportunities for young people in Green River who don't want to "get a county job or farm watermelons."

The project’s ties to the fossil fuel industry have been a major concern for opponents, after the “asset mapping” form the Emery County Commission put together and submitted to the port board for further consideration earlier this year explicitly mentioned coal as an area for growth through the Oakland coal port to Japan.

“The information they submitted to the port authority, we saw them talking about fossil fuel transloading facilities, for example, which is a completely inappropriate use of public land to support private business — setting aside the environmental consequences of creating something like that right there,” Seed, with the Stop the Polluting Port coalition, argued.

At the same time those against the proposal worry that the Green River port could be used to prop up the dying coal industry, they also point out that Emery County’s proposition didn’t offer any specific plans to mitigate the potential environmental effects of the project on the community.

As the process for siting a satellite port advances, Ryan, the Green River council member, said she recognized concerns among some opponents about environmental impacts and expects the city will move forward with an eye toward mitigating any harms that could arise.

“It could benefit many [people],” she said. “And I like to think that we as a whole have really smart, commonsense people and educated people that will just keep trying to keep our environment and our lives safe and clean and healthy.”

Ryan also said that city processes in Green River will improve after council members and the mayor came together following last month’s meeting to set guidelines ensuring all payments from the city’s coffers go through the proper channels.

“Unfortunately, we’re all human,” she said. But after those conversations, “I don’t believe it will happen again, ever.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.