Utah Lake dredging proponents sue BYU professor who criticized project

Project leaders say it is too early to reveal their scientific and financial support, yet blast BYU prof for filling in the blanks.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ben Abbott, Assistant Professor of Ecosystem Ecology at BYU, checks the status of a water monitoring station on a Utah Lake tributary in Payson Canyon on Thursday April 25, 2019. A leading critic of a proposal to dredge Utah Lake, the project's proponents have filed a $3 million lawsuit against him.

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Proponents of a massive dredging project on Utah Lake have sued one of the project’s leading critics, a Brigham Young University ecology professor, alleging he has made false and defamatory statements in “a misguided and wrongful campaign” to turn the public against the island-building project that they claim will fix the lake’s long-standing environmental problems.

Since the Legislature first endorsed the proposal four years ago, Ben Abbott, along with many other scientists, raised doubts about Lake Restoration Solutions’ (LRS) claims, arguing the dredging would likely do more harm than good. But Abbott made several factually inaccurate claims — leveled on Abbott’s blog, public presentations and social media, the company alleges in a suit filed Jan. 10 in Salt Lake City’s 3rd District Court. The suit seeks at least $3 million in compensatory damages and an award for punitive damages. It pledged to donate any proceeds to conservation organizations.

“While Lake Restoration welcomes fulsome, fact-based discussion of the Project (about which Lake Restoration has repeatedly invited public feedback), Abbott is not entitled to poison the debate with his false and defamatory statements,” the suit states.

The company seeks to dredge 1 billion cubic yards of contaminated sediments from the lake bed and use the material to build islands, some of which can be used for residential and commercial development. The islands would supposedly sequester the contaminants. Real estate deals would cover the project’s multibillion-dollar costs.

Abbott is a young, energetic and widely admired assistant professor known for speaking out on environmental issues. His lab explores the impact of wildfire on watersheds, among other topics related to climate change.

Reached Tuesday, Abbott declined to comment because he had yet to obtain legal counsel. He was served with the suit only hours before he spoke at Tuesday’s Utah Lake Summit co-hosted by Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, at Utah Valley University. LRS executives Jon Benson and Jeff Hartley spoke at the event, where Hartley, a prominent energy industry lobbyist, denounced project critics as liars for claiming the project has no scientific support.

Exactly what is the scientific foundation for the company’s claims that dredging the lake will fix its ecology and conserve water, however, is anybody’s guess.

After four years, the company had yet to publicly disclose its science or identify the PhD-level scientists they say are part of “world-class” team of designers, conservationists and researchers working in support of the project.

Meanwhile, the project’s initial proponents, brothers Todd and Ben Parker, along with their lead designer Robert Scott, are no longer publicly involved, replaced by another pair of brothers, Ryan and Jon Benson, as CEO and COO, respectively, and a new engineering firm.

The lawsuit does not contest Abbott’s overarching critique, endorsed by 108 other scientists and experts who signed an open letter raising eight fundamental concerns. The Dec. 29 letter contends dredging Utah Lake could worsen its water quality woes, devastate it ecologically and disrupt ongoing restoration efforts.

“LRS proposes to dredge the entire lake bed, create artificial islands to house 500,000 people, split the lake into dozens of small and deep impoundments, kill all 10 million fish with rotenone, and then use mechanical water circulators to prevent thermal stratification and dead zones,” state’s the letter, whose signatories include UVU’s emeritus science dean Sam Rushforth, among Utah Lake’s foremost researchers. “These efforts do not align with restoration best practices and are likely to reverse the lake’s recovery.”

Rather than take on the academic scientists’ core concerns, the lawsuit singles out factual claims — such as the source of the project’s funding, taxpayer exposure and lack of scientific support — Abbott has made over the past two years. LRS took particular exception to Abbott’s claims that it “has no scientists on its team” and that “no researchers are willing” to work on the Utah Lake project.

“None of these things is true, and no privilege shields Abbott from his lies,” the suit alleges.

According to the lawsuit, among Abbott’s alleged defamatory misstatements are claims that the proposal “would privatize the lake bed and cover about 1/5 of the lake in private islands.”

However, in its original form, the project proposed 20,000 acres of artificial islands, or about a fifth of the 150-square-mile lake’s current surface. But under the proposal’s current form, there would be 18,000 acres of islands, about half of which would be private, while the other half would be public for wildlife habitat and recreation, according to Benson. The lake bed itself, the part covered in water, would remain public.

The suit also objects to Abbott’s claim, made on his blog, that the project has “shady foreign funding” from Dubai, when the company says all its $6.4 billion in funding is from private domestic sources. LRS has steadfastly declined to identify its potential funders, citing nondisclosure agreements.

It also faulted Abbott’s claim, made before the Provo City Council, that LRS “went public on the [Securities and Exchange Commission] last year and only managed to raise $200,000.” Publicly available documents, however, appear to support these particular claims by Abbott.

In December, LRS filed an application, along with 500 pages of supporting material, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will undertake a review required by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, that will take about two years, according to company officials’ presentation at the Jan. 13 meeting of the Utah Lake Commission. The Army Corps confirmed that the application was filed but declined to release it to The Salt Lake Tribune, which has filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain it.

LRS has likewise declined to release its application materials, claiming “the process” bars them from releasing it at present.

“It’s full of data and citations. I can’t wait for that to be released,” Jon Benson told the Utah Lake Commission last week. “The next step would be that the Army Corps would either deem that application complete and release it, or that they will say, ‘We have some more questions. We need more data before we can do that.’ We don’t control it. It’s in our best interest, in everybody’s best interest to get that out there as soon as possible.”

He said he hopes to release the documents within the next 30 days.

At last week’s summit, LRS did identify the project’s lead engineer: Rudolph Bonaparte of Geosyntec Consultants, a global consulting firm based in Boca Raton, Fla., with an office in Salt Lake City.

Formerly the firm’s CEO and currently its chairman, Bonaparte holds a doctorate and has experience with contaminated sediments and dredging, according to his bio on the firm’s website. Then at the Jan. 13 Utah Lake Commission meeting, Benson introduced four Geosyntec experts, three of them engineers and a biologist named Scott Walker, who serves as the technical lead on permitting.

“We’ve also had significant collaboration with scientists and researchers. They have no ties to us, that we’re not able to pay or influence or anything like that. Their role is simply to be neutral observers,” Benson said. “The vast majority, if not all of them have said, ‘We’re not going to speak about this publicly until the appropriate time. It would be inappropriate to get ahead of the NEPA process and to state our opinions and our beliefs.’”

Still, it would be nice to know their names and credentials.