Powerful Utah politicians back Tooele rail spur, but see why EPA and others are wary

Project crosses Great Salt Lake wetlands to connect with an industrial park that has ties to Sen. Mitt Romney’s son.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Railroad tracks are visible near the Burmester Road exit off Interstate 80 near Grantsville on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. Savage Tooele Railroad intends to build a rail spur nearby that will connect with the main Union Pacific line and run south — potentially through wetlands — to a business park under development by Josh Romney, Sen. Mitt Romney's son.

A rail spur that is set to benefit a Tooele satellite port now has the backing of Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and two members of Congress, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has concerns about impacts to Great Salt Lake wetlands and air quality.

Utah-based Savage Tooele Railroad first filed notice of its intent to build the 12-mile line in September. The spur would cut south from a Union Pacific line running parallel to Interstate 80 and connect with the under-development Lakeview Business Park nestled between Grantsville and Tooele. That development is a holding of The Romney Group, founded by U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney’s son Josh Romney.

But first the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, or STB, must sign off, and the regulator has mostly been silent so far.

“We were hoping it’d be done by now,” said Josh Romney, adding “we have a couple of people who want to get started right away” with rail-related construction projects.

The Washington, D.C.-based STB has no statutory deadline to make a decision on filings, according to spokesperson Michael Booth.

“Anything’s possible, really,” Booth said, declining to comment further on the pending case.

The Romney Group has engaged in previous discussions about turning the area around Lakeview Business Park into a 12,000-acre satellite port. That idea has the backing of Tooele County officials and some surrounding property owners, according to emails obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune in 2020.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“This is going to have a huge economic impact for a county desperate for tax increment,” Romney said of his business park, noting that the Tooele area is rapidly growing but has few businesses to help buttress that growth.

And as Utah’s population continues to soar, building up rail infrastructure has frequently been touted by port supporters as a way to improve the way cargo moves through the state.

In December, The Romney Group issued a letter urging the STB to quickly approve Savage Tooele’s rail spur.

“There are multiple large-scale rail users hoping to locate to this site but are waiting for final rail approval,” the letter sad. “A delay in approval will likely cause these users to look for alternative sites.”

The governor weighs in

Weeks later, on Jan. 12, Cox and Utah Department of Transportation Executive Director Carlos Braceras also sent the STB letters in support of the proposed rail spur. Both called the project a boon that would provide “well-paying jobs” to rural Tooele County.

“In addition to the economic benefits,” Cox wrote, “the Savage Tooele Railroad has committed to being environmentally friendly and will work collaboratively with the state to implement the use of the latest technology on the project.”

Later that month, Indiana-based Victory Unlimited Construction sent a letter to the STB, sharing its intent to close on 100 acres of rail-served property within the business park. The company plans to build a “state of the art” cold storage and logistics facility that could bring around 100 jobs.

“But rail service is a necessity for this project,” a Victory representative wrote. “Time is of the essence for these deals to work and any help you can provide in reviewing this application in January 2022 would be greatly appreciated.”

On Jan. 26, U.S. Reps. John Curtis and Chris Stewart, both Utah Republicans, also issued letters asking the STB to “act as soon as possible” on the proposed rail spur construction.

“Transportation infrastructure is necessary to support economic growth in Utah and throughout the country,” Stewart wrote. “Resources like this are vital in strengthening key supply chain initiatives and the continued revitalization of our manufacturing industry.”

STB Chairman Martin J. Oberman responded to Stewart on Feb. 1, noting that he could not comment on a pending case.

“However,” Oberman wrote, “please be assured that the board will give full and fair consideration to all filings and submissions in this proceeding.”

Asked whether he had specifically asked Utah officials to petition the STB, Romney said he did reach out to Cox.

“The governor is a close friend and someone I know well,” Romney said. “He’s working really hard to develop in rural Utah, and this is a huge victory for rural Utah.”

The developer added that he did not contact members of Utah’s congressional delegation, however, including his dad, Sen. Romney.

“I did not ask for any federal leaders on any side,” he said. “I would never want to use my father’s office or any influence there.”

A spokesperson for Savage Tooele confirmed the company requested support from the governor as well as Curtis, since its Midvale headquarters are in his district, and from Stewart, whose district includes Tooele County.

“We appreciate the support expressed for our proposed short-line railroad by Utah officials and business leaders,” the spokesperson said in a statement, “and their recognition of the economic and environmental value of using rail transportation to serve businesses in the Lakeview Business Park.”

Impact concerns roll in

While Savage Tooele and The Romney Group have garnered support statements from at least three prominent Utah politicians, the STB also has received dozens of comments raising environmental concerns about the project.

On Jan. 4, Philip Strobel with the EPA’s Region 8 emailed an STB official with concerns about potential impacts, noting he only became aware of the rail proposal after reading a story in The Tribune.

“The project … appears to pass through a significant wetlands complex on the south shore of Great Salt Lake,” Strobel wrote. “The wetlands associated with Great Salt Lake account for nearly 80% of the wetland acreage in Utah.”

The EPA official added that those wetlands serve as vital habitat for migrating birds, making the lake a site of hemispheric importance.

“Many wetlands along the GSL have already been extensively altered or lost due to development pressures,” Strobel wrote. “The wetlands associated with GSL are perhaps the most ecologically important wetlands in our region.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Railroad tracks by the Burmester Road/County Road off I-80 near Grantsville, on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022.

The project could require a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or a review of whether it lies in a flood plain as well, said Strobel, warning that the project could impact air quality.

“Although the application states that the project would not impact any Clean Air Act nonattainment areas,” he wrote, “the project does appear to be wholly within” an EPA nonattainment zone in Tooele County that is prone to particulate and ozone pollution.

The Tribune previously pointed out the project’s location within a nonattainment zone to a Savage Tooele spokesperson in November. The company filed a correction with the STB days later, reducing its rail traffic projections.”

Along with the EPA, representatives from the Sierra Club, the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Utah Citizens Advocating Renewable Energy (UCARE) and the Erda Community Association filed comments calling for an environmental review.

Savage Tooele’s parent company, Savage Services, is heavily involved with coal, oil and gas freight in Utah, noted Stanley Holmes with UCARE.

“More needs to be known,” Holmes wrote, “about long-term plans for the type of freights that would be handled at the railport and on the rail line that the Savage Tooele Rail project would connect to Union Pacific.”

A large section of the proposed spur would be built atop a long-abandoned rail right of way, adversely impacting rural landowners in Tooele County, wrote attorney Janet Conway on behalf of the Erda Community Association. She also raised worries about traffic safety where the spur would cross Sheep Lane, Erda Way and State Road 138.

“The newly incorporated City of Erda will have to pay for intersection improvements and the fulfilling requirements to establish a quiet zone,” Conway said. “The liability falls on the city for accidents at crossings.”

Other residents in Tooele and neighboring Salt Lake County raised questions about how much train and truck traffic the project would generate and whether the Tooele Valley has the resources to support more growth.

“There is no water for this,” wrote a Tooele City resident. “There is not enough room on the roads for the current citizens, much less thousands and thousands of trucks.”

The Savage spokesperson estimated the Lakeview Business Park will likely need around double or triple the truck traffic if the rail spur isn’t approved, and added that the “I-80 freeway is much closer to the Great Salt Lake than any portion of the proposed rail line.”

Romney told The Tribune that concerns about environmental impacts from the project are overblown and that the spur would have “zero impact” on wetlands.

“People continue to say we’re impacting wetlands and haven’t gone out to see for themselves,” he said. “They’re throwing grenades to see what happens ... instead of looking for the truth.”