Inland port foes turn their attention to Kennecott and its Salt Lake City land holdings

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Kennecott mine towers over nearby neighborhoods.

A coalition of Utahns opposed to the inland port is calling on Rio Tinto Kennecott to agree to not develop any more land it owns in Salt Lake City’s northwest side.

Putting the property instead into a permanent conservation easement, they argue, would help protect wildlife, air and water quality in the area near the Great Salt Lake and would safeguard the Salt Lake Valley from an increase in traffic and adverse health impacts from the future distribution hub.

“Our request they make their inland port property a conservation easement is reasonable and fair,” said Brian Moench, board president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, during a news conference Wednesday. “On the other hand, for Rio Tinto to pursue yet a new way to profit from exploiting the residents of Utah is unreasonable, unfair and in fact unconscionable.”

The Stop the Polluting Port Coalition’s focus on Rio Tinto presents a shift in tactics away from the 11-member Utah Inland Port Authority Board, which is tasked with overseeing development of largely private land within the port jurisdiction, and toward property owners. Rio Tinto, which operates the massive Kennecott copper mine, is a major land owner in the planned inland port area.

“This is a different approach,” acknowledged Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and member of the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition. “We’ve found speaking to the Utah Inland Port Authority board is like banging our head against a wall.”

Putting pressure on the land owners, they hope, will be more effective at stopping the project.

As part of their efforts, members of the coalition sent a four-page letter calling for Jean-Sébastien Jacques Jacques, Rio Tinto’s CEO, to create a conservation easement out of its inland port land. The call to action was signed by 28 organizations — including the League of Women Voters of Salt Lake, the Westpointe Community Council, the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club and Utah Moms for Clean Air — as well as a number of community members.

Responding to the letter, a spokesman for Rio Tinto Kennecott said the state has established a “clear vision through legislation for this land as part of the inland port site, aimed at delivering sustainable economic benefits.”

“State leaders have established the Utah Inland Port Authority to gain public input throughout the project,” the statement continued. “While we are not acting as a developer in this project, Kennecott will continue to actively engage with the Utah Inland Port Authority, potential purchasers of our property, and community members to encourage sustainable development, environmental protections and positive conservation outcomes.”

The Inland Port Authority’s business plan, released to the public in May, notes that Rio Tinto Kennecott is “one of the largest landowners” in the area. Rio Tinto estimates that about 1,600 acres of the land it owns are developable, “with the remainder being reserved for its own operations, either as a buffer or for future tailings expansion.”

In their letter and during the news conference on Wednesday, members of the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition said that Rio Tinto has a “long history” of harming Utah’s environment.

They pointed to an acid plume at the southern end of the organization’s mining operation in western Salt Lake City that “rendered the water undrinkable for thousands of residents of South Jordan.” And the Bingham Canyon Mine, they said, is the second-largest source of toxic releases in the United States, based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2017 Toxic Release Inventory.

“Nothing can undo the damage Rio Tinto Kennecott has done to our air and water, but at least it can avoid causing even more harm in the future” by creating an easement, said David Scheer, an architect and member of the Stop the Pollution Port Coalition.

While community advocates have their concerns about the company, the port authority’s business plan states that Rio Tinto “is an advocate for environmental sustainability and nature preservation.”

“Rio Tinto created the Inland Sea Shorebird Reserve to mitigate the impact of its tailings expansion, resulting in over 3,600 acres of reserve lands which have increased bird use by over 1,000%, attracting 200 species,” the plan notes.

The company is also working to become carbon neutral by 2030 and is examining the potential for wind and solar energy across its mining sites, according to the business plan.