Inland Port may have upsides, but don’t downplay the downsides, Utahns are warned

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aerial photos of various Salt Lake City points of interest including the inland port area near the international airport and Great Salt Lake.

Inland ports, like the one under development in Salt Lake City, are always billed as economic drivers that build bridges between local economies and international markets.

But there is no getting around the fact they are massive freight operations that can subject communities and ecosystems to harmful emissions and noise, according to speakers at a forum hosted Saturday by project critics.

“The renderings always show this idyllic setting. What is missing is the truck traffic diesel pollution,” Adrian Martinez, an attorney from the nonprofit legal organization Earthjustice, told attendees gathered at the Utah State Fairpark. “They hire artists to make the project look cool and they are successful at it.”

At least 200 residents sacrificed their Saturday morning to attend the forum on potential impacts from Utah’s Inland Port in northwest Salt Lake City. Hosted by the Coalition for Port Reform, the event also offered suggestions for community organizers to push back against the plan that would serve powerful industries.

In an eleventh-hour move last year, the Utah Legislature carved out 20,000 acres near the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake, including the largely undeveloped northwest quadrant of Salt Lake City, for an inland port. The site leverages the proximity of two interstates, an international airport, rail yards and a existing warehouse district.

But Salt Lake City officials and the city’s legislative representatives have deep misgivings about the state’s intentions and are dismayed that lawmakers usurped the city’s jurisdiction, not to mention its tax base, in establishing the Utah Inland Port Authority.

The authority’s interim director, Chris Conabee, who attended the forum, argued that the port could actually alleviate emissions associated with the movement of freight overall and that the authority aspires to embrace practices that would minimize its own emissions.

“One of the difficult things is to hear people talk about it and pretend we won’t have worse impacts without a port,” Conabee said in an interview. “I’m not saying the port will be the solution to that. That work needs to be done.”

Conabee said he welcomed Saturday’s forum and noted that the port authority will host its own open houses Feb. 19 at the Fairpark and Feb. 26 at Franklin Elementary School.

“Any time a group of citizens gets together to shape what the government is doing is a good thing,” he said. “It should never be considered threatening or objectionable.”

The industry behind moving freight has rapidly expanded around the country to meet consumer demands for more and more goods, energy and food. U.S. companies move 57 tons of freight for each American each year, resulting in ever-more impacts to communities that the products move through, speakers said. Freight moving is now responsible for 10 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Sen. Luz Escamilla, a Democrat whose Salt Lake City district covers the port, intends to introduce a bill this session that would establish a monitoring network to collect baseline data on existing air quality and other environmental indicators around the project area.

Data produced from such a network would be intended to hold port developers accountable to the assertions they make in support of the project.

Andrea Vidaurre, policy analyst at the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, urged port critics to “fact-check” proponents’ claims regarding the facility’s benefits and negative impacts.

“We have to demand a cumulative analysis. We don’t want to know just what your giant project would do, but what it would do in the context of an area that already had poor air quality,” said Vidaurre, whose group represents communities in Southern California’s Inland Empire that are affected by the busy freight operations. “We have to demand it because none of it is going to be given out. They will not tell you this is the worst-case scenario. At the end of the day, it’s your reality. You’re going to be living there and breathing it in.”

Also speaking Saturday was Heather Dove, president of Great Salt Lake Audubon, who addressed the habitat needs of the millions of birds that rely on the vast saline lake near the port.

“These mud flats are full of life. These birds will lose their home,” she said. “Noise will disturb the integrity of these natural habitats. Light pollution disrupts natural navigation aids. It can cause so much confusion that birds drop from exhaustion.”