Salt Lake City may not be able to stop the development of a massive distribution hub that’s planned on 20,000 acres near the international airport and the Great Salt Lake, but city officials say they’re doing what they can to fight off any negative health and environmental impacts.
They fear increased traffic congestion and more pollution. They worry about water usage and potential harm to wildlife. They are concerned about the impacts from storing coal, petroleum and uranium. And they have until year’s end to update their rules pertaining to the inland port or lose the ability to regulate the massive project.
“We’re working as fast and furious to create as tight of zoning regulations as we possibly can to try to mitigate potential damage,” said Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, though she noted it’s still possible that their regulations won’t be the final say. “The board of the inland port still has the ability to override any decision that is made by this city government."
In the race to meet the state-mandated deadline, the city’s Planning Commission has unanimously recommended rules to the City Council that would prohibit refineries, require some businesses to conduct environmental impact assessments and regulate the storage and transfer of natural resources such as coal.
The council is expected to consider the proposed ordinance sometime this month, said Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall.
“We will have a full public process,” she said.
If passed, it would prohibit heavy industrial uses that could have significant air quality impacts — like oil refineries, chemical manufacturing and mining — in favor of light industry, like warehousing and food processing. It would also require companies proposing more impactful uses, like railroad freight terminals or recycling process centers, to complete an environmental mitigation plan.
“We envision that area to be kind of a light industrial type of job center,” said Tracy Tran, a senior planner with the city’s Planning Division. “And we know kind of the types of uses that come along with that. But for uses that just might have additional impacts, the conditional use process allows us to kind of review each development on a case-by-case basis.”
The city can’t keep natural resources like coal and oil from passing through the city or the port altogether. But the ordinance seeks to require that such materials be stored indoors or treated with dust-preventing material if stored on rail cars.
“The legislation requires, specifically calls out, that the inland port area has to allow for the temporary storage of natural resources — but it doesn’t define what temporary means,” said Matthew Rojas, a spokesman in the mayor’s office. “So we’re attempting to say, ‘It’s 30 days, and here’s how it would be stored.’ But the board at any point could come in and say, ‘That’s unreasonable,’ and they could just overrule that.”
Derek Miller, chairman of the Inland Port Authority Board, said the body is aware of the city’s process to create regulations for the port and has been receiving updates from James Rogers, a councilman who represents Salt Lake City on the board.
"They’ve already done a lot of groundwork that I think the port authority can build off of,” he said.
Rogers could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The city has fought the bill creating the inland port ever since it was unveiled and passed late on the eve of the final day of January’s legislative session. Protesting state overreach, loss of millions of dollars in potential tax revenues and a worrisome precedent for future state land grabs, city officials spent the next several months working to find a compromise with the port’s supporters at the Capitol, which they did in a special session in July without Biskupski’s involvement.
The mayor told a group of residents last month that the legislation that created it is “unconstitutional” and would likely face litigation. Until then, she said the city is doing what it can to address environmental concerns in the face of an “ambiguous” bill that doesn’t fully outline what the future port will look like.
Mike Reberg, director of Salt Lake City’s Department of Community and Neighborhoods, said the Planning Department has done the best it can to maintain the city’s environmental values within a tight time frame. But he urged residents to stay engaged in the process and bring any concerns to the City Council.
“Because there was such an expedited time frame to get this thing done before the end of the year,” he said, “I think it’s been a rushed process.”