Company’s plan for 12-mile rail bisecting wetlands worries Great Salt Lake advocates

The project could bisect “endangered” wetlands, connecting with an industrial park that has ties to Sen. Mitt Romney’s son.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Romney Group, a private real estate investment company, is pushing for the creation of a 12,000-acre satellite port in Tooele County, which includes Erda. Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

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As the inland port in Salt Lake City works to build out its rail lines and capacity to transfer goods between trains and trucks, a proposed satellite port in the next county over appears to be quietly putting rail plans of its own into motion.

On Sept. 2, a company named Savage Tooele Railroad filed notice with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, or STB, of its intent to build a 12-mile rail spur off a Union Pacific line that runs parallel to Interstate 80 in Tooele County.

The spur would cut south, connecting to the Lakeview Business Park, a still-undeveloped warehouse project covering hundreds of acres. The project is a holding of the Romney Group, founded by U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney’s son Josh Romney, and part of a potential 12,000-acre satellite port supported by Tooele County officials.

The plans raised concerns from port opponents and Great Salt Lake advocates, as the spur runs through important wetlands surrounding the lake that are increasingly getting gobbled up by development.

“Air quality, natural resources, habitats, wetlands, uplands, community, quality of life — why bother when there’s land to develop, to bring more noise, more traffic?” sarcastically asked Lynn de Freitas with FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake. “Where’s the pause button when you need it?”

Questioning the impact on air quality

The rail spur project would repair about seven miles of existing but deteriorated Union Pacific track and add five new miles within the Lakeview Business Park over time. Savage expects to begin construction in the first quarter of 2022, a spokesperson said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Utah Inland Port Authority director Jack Hedge said neither Tooele County nor the Romney Group had yet petitioned to become a satellite port, but that an existing rail spur would make it an attractive prospect.

“That certainly would create a good business case for something,” Hedge said. “That’s one of the things we’re looking for, the business case.”

The proposed inland port in Tooele County has largely been shaped out of public view, but emails obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune last year show it could encompass 12,000 acres, much of which is now agricultural and grazing land and includes a large complex of wetlands immediately south of the lake.

But in Savage Tooele Railroad’s filing, it said an environmental assessment of its proposed spur was not warranted because it wouldn’t see more than an eight-train increase in traffic a day.

That claim doesn’t hold water for Deeda Seed with the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition, as construction activities that disturb wetlands typically require review and permitting from the federal government.

“That’s a huge red flag,” Seed said. “It really seems like they’re trying to skirt any scrutiny of this development, and were hoping to slide it through and make it a fait accompli.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shipping containers are moved by rail in and out of the Union Pacific intermodal terminal at a steady pace, west of Salt Lake City on Nov. 10, 2021. Tooele was one of several Utah counties that expressed support early on for the so-called 'hub-and-spoke’ model, in which Salt Lake City would serve as an inland port hub, while other interested communities would represent the satellite port spokes.

The filing further states the spur would not impact a Clean Air Act nonattainment area, which is a region where air pollution levels exceed national air quality standards. But the proposed rail line clearly lies in a portion of Tooele County that’s considered a nonattainment area for ozone and particulate pollution.

“We’ve realized we made an error in our STB filing with respect to being in a nonattainment area and are filing a correction,” Jeff Hymas, a spokesperson for Savage Companies, Tooele Savage’s parent company, wrote in an email to The Tribune. “We do not believe this will have any substantive impact on our filing.”

Days after The Tribune’s inquiry, Savage filed a correction to its STB filing, noting it “mistakenly investigated the character of its proposed operation area” and it did, in fact, lie in a nonattainment area. But, the company added, it would only operate three additional trains a day or less, instead of eight, meeting federal requirements for nonattainment zones.

Still, Seed predicted an increase in train-delivered cargo will bring more semitruck traffic, more emissions, and further worsen the area’s pollution problems.

“There’s absolutely no way that the kind of warehouse development being intended in this area can happen without huge negative air quality consequence that throw us further out of attainment,” Seed said.

Another red flag for Seed is Savage’s deep ties to the coal and petroleum industries.

“In Price, they have a terminal that ships out coal and oil and gas,” Seed said. “It’s always a concern when the entity is in that business. I couldn’t say, exactly, how that would figure into this, because we have so little information about what’s intended.”

Hymas said Savage will transport a “variety of bulk materials” on its planned spur, but the company doesn’t know what the exact cargo will be given that there are no rail-served businesses at the park so far.

Romney makes case for environmental gains

Reached by phone, Josh Romney said the rail proposal was Savage Companies’ project, and that his Lakeview Business Park will be successful with or without it, and with or without becoming part of a satellite inland port.

“We are not an inland port, we are not a satellite port,” Romney said. “There’s a proposal out there to become one, but we’re not sure we’ll come to terms on that.”

And contrary to naysayer’s claims, Romney said his development could have environmental benefits, particularly for the airshed.

“One reason is it keeps traffic off Interstate 15” in the congested Salt Lake Valley, Romney said. “[Trucks] would take back roads behind the Oquirrh Mountains and then connect to I-15.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Romney Group, a private real estate investment company, is pushing for the creation of a 12,000-acre satellite port in Tooele County, which includes Erda. Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

More train access, too, could help lower emissions in the region, he said, as “trucks are much more polluting.”

And a warehouse hub won’t necessarily generate new truck traffic and cargo hauling to the Tooele Valley, Romney said.

“The demand is created by the people on the Wasatch Front who are shopping online and buying things,” he said. “The goods are coming here right now as it is. The question is, can we get them here more efficiently and in an environmentally friendly way?”

The wetlands complex

A spokesperson for the STB, Michael Booth, said he couldn’t speculate on when the federal agency might make a decision about Savage Tooele Rail’s spur.

“If there’s public opposition, if there are wetlands involved, there could be several decisions along the way,” Booth said.

Hymas said Savage is “currently performing a wetlands study on the rail line,” but did not provide further detail.

Wetlands serve important ecological functions and help with water flow and filtration. About 80% of Utah’s wetlands surround Great Salt Lake and provide vital feeding and nesting habitat for millions of migrating birds. But about one-third of Utah’s wetlands have been lost to development, according to the Utah Geological Survey.

In the 2000s, Tooele County began an effort to evaluate its wetlands near the Great Salt Lake through a surface area management plan, or SAMP. The plan was apparently never finalized. Public records requests and inquires sent to the county were unsuccessful, and state or county officials and staff involved with the SAMP appear to have long since retired or otherwise departed.

But a map obtained from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources that was part of a draft SAMP report shows Savage’s proposed railroad spur would bisect an area of “high” wetland function. And a study by the Utah Geological Survey conducted concurrently with the SAMP deemed Tooele Valley’s wetlands “endangered” and recommended restrictions on development.

“We kept being assured the environmental impacts will be mitigated” as Tooele County expanded, said de Freitas, who said she was involved in the SAMP. “But there’s no way there’s evidence that supports that.”

Spencer Martin, an ecologist who worked for Tooele County as a consultant during the SAMP process, said the study wasn’t finalized at least in part due to a “lack of political will” and lack of funding.

After reviewing a map of the proposed rail spur, Martin said the fact that the track follows an abandoned Union Pacific line would likely minimize its environmental damage. But aerial imagery shows springs pass through the old railway right-of-way.

“I don’t know if that’s because it’s broken or there are culverts,” Martin said. “It’s hard to say what the impacts would be.”

But beyond the rail spur, emails previously reviewed by The Tribune show the proposed Tooele satellite port’s location include a vast swath of wetlands previously identified in the SAMP.

“Based on what I know, if they were to build something north of [Utah State Route 138] they’d have to bring in a lot of fill and there’d be extensive wetland impacts,” Martin said. But, “at this point, with the mapping we did 20 years old, I just don’t know what the extent of wetlands are anymore.”

Between the state’s prolonged drought — the Great Salt Lake hit a record-low elevation over the summer — and groundwater withdrawals, much of the wetlands may have already dried up, Martin said.

In the end, there may be no real development plans for the wetlands area at all, apart from the rail connection. Exchanges between the Tooele County commissioners and the Romney Group implied some parcels were included in the satellite port footprint to “drive up the acreage” and create protected zones to “give the environmental groups a win.”

De Freitas with FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake said she’s frustrated with the vagaries and lack of transparency shrouding many of the proposed inland projects to date, including those in the Tooele Valley.

“It’s like this runaway train that’s just going, and doing, and claiming, without any accountability that comes,” de Freitas said. “Unless you happen to be behind closed doors in an inland port board meeting.”