EPA is launching an environmental justice study of Salt Lake City’s west side

Neighborhoods like Rose Park and Poplar Grove have long shouldered pollution impacts from freeways, rail yards and refineries. Some fear the inland port and drying Great Salt Lake will further exacerbate environmental inequality.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Air pollution continues to settle upon Salt Lake Valley in the morning on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022.

Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color have long taken the brunt of environmental burdens in the United States. And a forthcoming assessment will explore the disproportionate toll of pollution on Salt Lake City’s west side.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has pledged to fund the assessment, and it has the mayor’s backing. But the catalyst for the review came was a grassroots push from organizers like the Westside Coalition and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.

“This has been a long time in the making,” said Richard Holman, founder and former chair of the Westside Coalition. He said he first initiated conversations about a study with the EPA about two years ago. “This is something I’m very committed to.”

The capital city’s west side, which includes neighborhoods like Rose Park, Poplar Grove and Glendale, has grappled with many environmental challenges over the decades. They include interstate vehicle smog, oil refineries, rail yards, notoriously dirty switcher trains that blow diesel fumes and a growing international airport.

Pollution concerns have further been compounded with plans to build out the northwest quadrant with an inland port, along with toxic blowing dust from the ever-drying Great Salt Lake.

“I couldn’t leave my windows open at night because the rail operation over there was just horrible,” said Holman, who formerly lived in Rose Park but had to relocate due to health problems. “We used to smell some weird stuff at night.”

The EPA has had an environmental justice arm for about 20 years, but studies typically focused on a single source of pollution that impacted communities, like a Superfund site, according to Michael Wenstrom, an environmental protection specialist with EPA’s Region 8.

“Assessments have been done from time to time in various states,” Wenstrom said, “and various circumstances all under the umbrella of environmental justice.”

The study of Salt Lake City’s west side, however, will be far more comprehensive and holistic, he said, exploring a plethora of environmental and public health problems.

“And the community is the driver on this in terms of trying to help us understand what’s important to them,” Wenstrom said. “What’s the problem along the west side? Is it air? Is it water? Is it solid waste?”

Issues and priorities will likely vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, he added. Rose Park residents, for example, might worry about indoor air quality because the housing stock is older, so residents have issues with things like asbestos.

“Then you go down to ballpark, and you have a whole different set of issues,” Wenstrom said. “My assumption is, air-related issues are going to be at the center of everything we’re looking at.”

EPA’s environmental justice assessment’s main purpose is to collect data, capturing a sense of how things are now and how far west side communities have come. The federal agency won’t be making any recommendations with the study.

“EPA is not riding in on a stallion and trying to make things perfect,” Wenstrom said. Instead, “... we help the communities solve their own problems.”

The agency is still ironing out the project’s scope, but Wenstrom said it will begin “soon,” likely cost “tens of thousands” and take “six to nine months” to complete.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall issued a letter in support of the assessment in January, specifically asking the agency to evaluate the inland port area.

“The environmental scenarios prepared by [the port authority] indicate thousands of additional tons of air pollution generated daily by the port by 2050,” Mendenhall wrote, “but do not contain the neighborhood-scale analyses required to evaluate environmental justice concerns or potential mitigation measures.”

The mayor also noted concerns about the port’s impact on water quality, particularly for the withered Great Salt Lake.

“I believe your office can play a vital role,” Mendenhall wrote, “in helping Salt Lake City and [the port authority] assess the impact of the planned inland port on nearby neighborhoods, especially in the context of their unique health risks, vulnerabilities, and preexisting environmental burdens.”

Wenstrom said EPA is working with Salt Lake City as a partner on the environmental justice assessment. And the Utah Inland Port Authority has had a major shake-up to its leadership since Mendenhall wrote her letter. The port’s new board and executive director have expressed a willingness to help facilitate the study.

“The port is in full cooperation,” said Victoria Petro-Eschler, a nonvoting port board member and City Council member representing west side residents, in an interview last month. “What [the assessment] really will do is give us a treasure trove of actual data on which we can base any forward movements — particularly impacts to the historically disenfranchised.”

The city and port authority are also forging an agreement on how to spend the port’s tax revenue, which has been the source of legal battles and public controversy in the past. Drafts of that agreement, along with mandates from the Utah Legislature, require the port to fund more environmental studies along with a health impact assessment and affordable housing projects.

For Westside Coalition members, the EPA’s own study will serve as a valuable tool in ensuring the environmental imbalance between east and west doesn’t get worse.

“We don’t see this as just about the port,” said Dan Strong, the coalition’s board president. “... This will establish a baseline as far as how disparate is the environmental justice [situation]. Then we can advocate for ourselves.”