Inland Port opponents criticize naming of oil and gas advocates to new technical committee

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, Inland Port Authority board member who was appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Sept. 26, 2018. Before the Inland Port board met Wednesday, a coalition of community, environmental and civic organizations have raised a separate transparency issue, noting that the group’s proposed half-page budget lacks specificity. The coalition wants to see the board acknowledge concern within the community, provide more details about its budget and fund an investigation into potential environmental harms from development of the port.

Members of a group opposed to a 20,000-acre distribution hub in Salt Lake City’s westernmost area raised concerns Monday about the inclusion of fossil fuel interests on a new committee established by the Inland Port Authority Board.

Board Chairman Derek Miller proposed the technical committee at last month’s meeting, promoting it as a way for experts to begin answering the economic, transportation and environmental questions posed by what has been billed as the state’s largest-ever economic development project.

He pitched the inclusion of the Utah Department of Transportation, Department of Environmental Quality, Kem Gardner Policy Institute and Wasatch Front Regional Council.

But Rep. Francis Gibson, a board member and incoming Utah House majority leader, said there were other voices that hadn’t been considered for the committee: “people from the extraction and mining industry” and those from rural Utah. He and Stuart Clason, Salt Lake County’s regional economic development director, argued successfully for inclusion on the board of the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining; the Community Impact Fund Board; and SITLA, which oversees state school trust lands and promotes their development.

The Coalition for Port Reform, an Inland Port opposition group, said Monday that those three bodies have “fossil fuel interests” and that their presence on the board may point to the port’s future as a “transloading facility for fossil fuels extracted from public lands in Utah.”

“The bias on the technical committee is of extreme concern and I think creates at least the appearance that the board is trying to push the project in a certain direction,” said David Scheer, a Coalition member, during public comment at the board’s meeting on Monday.

Miller told The Salt Lake Tribune before the meeting on Monday that absent a business plan, he’s not sure whether a transloading facility will be part of the port development. But he said none of the agencies called out by the Coalition for Port Reform were put on the technical committee specifically to provide expertise on the extraction industry.

“I understand and appreciate the concerns with coal,” he said before the meeting, but noted that “this inland port is not being built with the sole purpose of being able to get coal out of Utah as some people have said.”

At the meeting, held at Salt Lake Community College’s Westpointe Center, Miller said the Wasatch Front Regional Council, Department of Environmental Quality and UDOT have responded to a request to serve on the committee but that he hadn’t heard back from any of the other entities.

Port opponents have raised concerns over the past few months about how the project will impact the environment, saying it will likely worsen air quality and damage the Great Salt Lake’s already fragile ecosystem.

The Salt Lake City Council is in the process of passing regulations that look to help fight negative health and environmental impacts from the port. The proposed rules, which are still under consideration, would prohibit refineries, require some businesses to conduct environmental impact assessments and regulate the storage and transfer of natural resources, such as coal.

The city can’t keep natural resources like coal and oil from passing through the city or the port altogether. But the proposed ordinance seeks to require that such materials be stored indoors or treated with dust-preventing material if stored on rail cars.