Utah lawmaker asks for fewer opinions about the environment and pollution at inaugural inland port authority meeting

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Majority Whip Rep. Francis D. Gibson, R-Mapleton, speaks during floor time in the Utah House of Representatives, Wednesday, March 7, 2018.

Members of the public were pleasantly surprised Monday when the newly-elected chairman of the Utah Inland Port Authority, Derek Miller, opened the board’s inaugural meeting up for comment.

Representatives from the Wasatch Clean Air Coalition, Westside Coalition, Heal Utah and Breathe Utah each took a turn at the microphone, introducing themselves and their organizations, thanking Miller for the unexpected opportunity to speak and expressing general encouragement that the development of an international trading hub in Salt Lake City be environmentally conscious.

“It’s our goal to continue to attend these meetings,” Westside Coalition member Richard Holman said. “I have to say, I’m encouraged by the openness and transparency that you have put on record.”

But inland port board member and state Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, suggested that environmental advocacy groups agree on a single designee for future meetings. The House Majority whip, Gibson said he might not be willing to entertain multiple entities pushing their pet priorities, particularly if it resulted in infighting between similar, but separate, advocacy organizations.

“Let’s figure out who is going to be the [environmental] voice that we can actually talk to and understand and try to work with going forward," Gibson said.

Deeda Seed, Utah field campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, pushed back on Gibson’s comments. She said it’s not yet known how the inland port will affect the state’s already-impacted air and water quality, and those questions will generate a range of responses and recommendations from interested parties.

“There will be lots of voices because this is, as you yourself have acknowledged, a very big deal," Seed said. “We have serious problems we have to deal with, and there won’t be a unifying voice.”

Development of the inland port has been mired in accusations of closed-door decision making. The original bill establishing the port authority was rushed through the Legislature in the final two days of the 2018 session, with little debate and effectively no opportunity for public comment.

The law was amended during a recent special session following private negotiations between state leaders and the Salt Lake City Council. But the replacement bill was also criticized after it was placed last on the agenda for its lone public hearing, allowing one minute each for residents to voice feedback.

Miller, the port authority chairman, said he was grateful for the public comment at Monday’s meeting.

“We heard a lot of them talk about environmental concerns,” he said. “Those are valid concerns we all share.”