Senate committee OKs an inland port bill that critics worry would facilitate transport of coal

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aerial photos of various Salt Lake points of interest including the proposed inland port area. Salt Lake Tribune, downtown, capitol, North Salt Lake.

A bill that seeks to expand the inland port — a massive distribution hub planned for Salt Lake City’s westernmost area — unanimously cleared a Senate committee on Monday, despite concerns from environmentalists over the proposal’s relationship to coal.

HB433, sponsored by inland port board member and House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, would shift the development from its focus on a single site in the state’s capital to a multisite approach that would include rural areas across the state.

In the so-called “hub-and-spoke” model, Salt Lake City would serve as the hub, while other interested communities would make up the spokes — an effort Gibson says would make it easier for communities with exports to clear international customs and would bring good jobs to overlooked communities while dispersing the impact of emissions and traffic problems in Salt Lake County.

Gibson told the Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee that shipping is one of the biggest costs companies face and that having a satellite location would mitigate those costs by allowing them to distribute products without having to first send them to Salt Lake City.

In Carbon County, for example, “coal is a big export,” he said. “Why would we want to bring all of that coal to Salt Lake and ship it out west when we could just do it there?”

The bill would allow the Inland Port Authority Board, which oversees the inland port development, to expand the project beyond its current boundaries if it receives written consent from the governmental body of the new area or from the private landowner. Several rural counties have already expressed interest in the project.

During public comment on the bill, Deeda Seed, a community activist with the Coalition for Port Reform, argued satellite facilities would result in the same worsening of air quality and quality of life that residents are concerned about in Salt Lake City and worried the bill is a financial tool to support fossil fuel industries.

“When you vote in favor of this, you’re voting in favor of creating the mechanism to start subsidizing these private businesses,” she told lawmakers. That seems “very counter to the ethic of this legislative body, which I believe supports free market enterprise,” she added.

Utahn Stan Holmes raised similar concerns during his comments to the committee, worrying that Gibson’s bill is part of “a symbiotic relationship apparently between the coal industry, the export terminal and the inland port.” He told lawmakers he was opposed to the proposal because “there’s too much about coal in the bill.”

Gibson, though, refuted the idea that his bill looks specifically to support coal, noting that the state’s No. 1 export is alfalfa and that the proposal would allow businesses to ship items as innocuous as chairs.

“I’ve looked through here and I don’t see that this bill is full of coal language,” he said. “This is meant for exports of things that are manufactured in Utah.”

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune 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.

Inland port opponents have long worried about how the development, which is expected to bring increased rail, truck and air traffic along with tailpipe emissions, will impact the environment, including air quality and the Great Salt Lake’s fragile ecosystem.

Gibson said Monday that he is working and will continue to work with environmentalists on these concerns, noting that the bill now includes a renewable energy component that he says would create incentives for businesses to power their operations with solar energy and renewable sources.

Michael Shea, a senior policy associate with HEAL Utah, a clean air advocacy organization, noted that the organization is neutral on the bill but said language like that is a “very positive step forward.”

Salt Lake City Council Chairman Charlie Luke also spoke in favor of the bill, noting that Gibson had worked with council members to address “serious concerns” related to sales tax, tax increment and litigation.

One of the most controversial provisions of the original proposal was its prohibition against challenges to the “creation, existence, funding, powers, project areas or duties of the Utah Inland Port Authority” and the use of public money to bring forward any litigation.

The bill now states that a government’s legislative body could bring forward a legal challenge but an executive or administrative branch could not — a provision that seems directly pointed at Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who has long opposed to the inland port.

John Hiskey, who was representing the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said he’s heard from a lot of rural communities that are excited at the prospect of being included in the port development but worried about the limitations the bill would place on those cities’ ability to litigate.

The bill now goes to the full Senate for consideration, where it will face its last legislative hurdle after passing 61-11 through the House last week.