In the months since state lawmakers took control of a massive swath of land in Salt Lake City’s northwest area, concerns about possible health impacts, environmental damage and degradation of quality of life have often overshadowed conversations focused on economic opportunity.
But rather than dissipating with time, the main group opposed to the inland port development appears to be taking a harder line.
“If you go back and you listen to how I was describing [the development] last spring, it was, ‘We need to make this sustainable,’” said Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity. “And I still think everything out there should be sustainable, whatever it ends up being. But also we learned that it’s [misleading] to suggest that you can have a port that’s sustainable at this time.”
Seed is one of the leaders of a port opposition group previously known as the Coalition for Port Reform. In keeping with the involved environmental, health and conservation organization’s changing stances toward the port, the group recently changed its name to what almost seems like a mantra: “Stop the Polluting Port.”
That goal is one Seed believes can be achieved — with a little organization and sustained opposition.
“We can make the kind of development that happens out there a lot smaller,” she said. “As I’m seeing more and more people engage in this issue, I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been that we can stop it.”
Chris Conabee, interim director of the Inland Port Authority Board, said the newly named Stop the Polluting Port group has brought positive attention to sustainability challenges within the development and that every voice has a right to be heard in the public engagement process.
“But, you know, at what point do they come into the process and help us solve things?” he said. “Because that’s the part that never gets told. That’s the frustrating part I think for me and maybe others.”
Conabee noted that the group’s members represent only some of the stakeholders that need to be heard in the port process. The board is working to get more people involved through six working groups that will look at issues ranging from corporate recruitment to air quality, and Seed and others in the group have been invited to take part in those, he said.
“Sticking your head in the sand and thinking you just don’t want [the port] to come, that defies the logic of what we’re seeing in terms of package delivery growth and population growth," he said. “And you can’t ignore that — you have to plan for it. So if they want to help plan as much as any other citizen that wants to come plan, we’d love to have them at the table.”
The board, which will oversee development in the area, has argued that the land will develop with or without the board’s direction and that it could actually be more sustainable under state control.
Seed contends its projections for what could be built there under Salt Lake City’s zoning are “completely exaggerated.”
She also believes it’s impossible to have a clean port and says rhetoric implying otherwise is “green washing” — the practice of making misleading or inaccurate claims about the environmental benefits of a company or its practices in an effort to make it appear more sustainable than it really is.
“If you put it to taxpayers, do they really want to pay for something that’s going to pollute their air?” she asked. “And what is the urgency? And what is the need? We have a booming economy. Why do we need this?”
‘A people-powered movement’
More than 50 people filled a meeting room at the Corinne and Jack Sweet Library Branch on a recent Monday night, taking notes and listening attentively as Seed covered issues ranging from Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s litigation against the state’s creation of the inland port to the Legislature’s passage of a bill that would allow the development to branch beyond Salt Lake City.
“Really, the port is about people wanting to make money,” she said passionately as people in the audience hummed in agreement. “Private interests wanting to make money and wanting to use our public resources to facilitate that.”
People have questions. They want to understand how they should speak to the Inland Port Authority Board, where county and Salt Lake City Council leaders stand on the development and how they could put pressure on any private interests that look to invest in the port in the future.
Seed, a former Salt Lake City councilwoman who has worked as an activist in one form or another for more than three decades, answered their questions patiently and urged them to stay involved in the process.
“This is a people-powered movement and to win, we need more and more people to engage,” she said. “I mean, it’s truly remarkable with mostly volunteers what we’ve been able to accomplish so far in terms of pushing back against this.”
The group has more than 30 volunteers working on the inland port, but Seed is the only person paid full time to work on the issue.
Jon Jensen, a Salt Lake City resident, told The Salt Lake Tribune after the meeting that it gave him hope “it was possible to have a say” in what he sees as “a disaster waiting to happen in every way" — but particularly when it comes to air and water quality.
“I’d like to see a campaign, a coordinated campaign, that draws in a lot more people,” he said. “Because as more people learn about what this really is about, they’ll see that it’s something they disagree with. It’s not in their interests; it’s in a few private companies’ interests.”
‘In it until the end’
Rain drizzles across an empty field on a windy Tuesday afternoon as Seed and other leaders of the inland port opposition movement scope out an area that one day may be covered in warehouses or a rail yard.
Without a business plan, it’s hard to know how, exactly, this area north of Interstate 80 will develop. But Seed and Dorothy Owen, chairwoman of the Westpointe Community Council; Heather Dove, president of the Great Salt Lake Audubon; and Michael Cundick, executive director of SLC Air Protectors, share a common aim: protecting this landscape and its wildlife.
Visiting the landscape, where birds flew overhead and antelope crossed by, reiterated for Cundick the need to help people understand what could be lost here.
“The wetlands are a place where lots of bird habitat and food for them to eat is present,” he told The Tribune. “It should be open space in that area for sure. It makes me think about all the things that made this valley great."
Cundick, who said he has long been involved in efforts to protect the state’s environment and wildlife, has been pushing for the coalition to shift from reform to a more radical position. And now that the group has what he sees as a clearer position, he believes it will “open the floodgates for a lot of community involvement."
As the group escalates its opposition efforts, members are considering signing on to Biskupski’s litigation with “friend of the court” briefs and are scoping out opportunities for future suits based on environmental damage, wildlife preservation or air quality attainment.
They’re planning mayoral and City Council candidate surveys and will possibly host a candidate forum to put pressure on those who are running to lead the city to oppose the port, like Biskupski has.
They’re also looking to broaden their movement beyond Salt Lake City, engage young people and canvass areas in the west side to bring more communities of color into their cause. They want to empower more opponents to come to meetings and speak to the port board to help create a record of public concern.
“We’re in it until the end,” Cundick said. “And by pushing this resistance and providing an alternative paradigm for the health of the planet, we’re going to be influencing the bulk of our population here in Utah to really think deeply about the role of living in Utah and what [the port] means for our environment and our families and our community.”