Environmental activists take over, shut down the Inland Port Authority Board’s monthly meeting

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Ethan Peterson with Civil Riot kicked off the protest shortly after the meeting began. A group called Civil Riot shut down the Inland Port Authority Board meeting at North Star ElementaryÕs gymnasium Wednesday, April 24, 2019 shortly after it began by speaking over board chairman Derek Miller.

Less than five minutes into the Inland Port Authority Board’s monthly meeting on Wednesday, Ethan Petersen stood up from his chair with a megaphone.

“Board members,” he said, interrupting a budget discussion. “You haven’t been listening, you haven’t been responding and [are] engaging in anti-scientific and environmentally destructive behavior. So we’re going to have a people’s port meeting.”

He and about 15 other community activists proceeded, with signs in hand, to the front of the school gymnasium at North Star Elementary School, which is located less than a mile from the massive distribution hub development planned for Salt Lake City’s northwesternmost area.

“Abort the port!” they chanted. “No inland port!”

“We’ll just take a break for a moment,” said board Chairman Derek Miller.

After listening to the activists in relative silence for a few minutes — though there were periods in which Petersen and Miller talked over one another — that moment turned into a 15-minute recess. Then, staff began picking up the name tags of the 11-member board and wrapping up cords powering a projector as members walked out the door, effectively ending April’s meeting.

Chris Conabee, interim executive director of the Inland Port Authority Board, said as he left the meeting that he was disappointed in the efforts to “derail” the port board’s work.

“It’s unfortunate that the few doesn’t follow the rules and doesn’t give the public a chance to speak,” he said, referring to the public comment period specifically outlined for that purpose. “It’s just a small minority voice taking over.”

The board was scheduled to receive an update from the Audubon Society about the wetlands in the area, as well as an update about its public engagement process and on its tax differential policy, among other items.

“The Authority meets monthly to conduct business, hear presentations from stakeholder groups and receive public comment," the port board said in a statement released later Wednesday evening. “Unfortunately, none of this could happen, including a presentation from the Great Salt Lake Audubon on a buffer zone for environmental preservation.”

The board, however, said it remains "committed to working collaboratively with all interested parties to address growth and challenges in a productive and safe environment.”

Petersen, who’s a member of the activist group Civil Riot, said those who participated in the protest Wednesday already have played by the rules, engaging in public comment at meetings — taking the port survey and using other avenues to voice their concerns — but they feel they haven’t been heard.

“We are left with no other recourse but to shut down the meetings,” Petersen told reporters after the demonstration. “And we even have to escalate beyond that if they are not willing to cancel this project because it’s a bad project.”

Without an environmental impact study — which is in the works — it’s hard to say what the effects could be of the planned distribution hub, which it is expected to bring increased rail, truck and air traffic along with tailpipe emissions. Still, opponents have raised concerns about the project’s possible effects on air quality and wildlife in the city’s west side.

That’s why Petersen said the group’s goal Wednesday was to stop the board’s momentum on the development. Their eventual aim is to shut the project down altogether.

“I think right now it could be really easy,” he said. “They could go to Applebee’s or wherever they like to have their food … and share a Diet Coke and say, ‘Listen. We’re behaving in an immoral way. … We have shown zero regard for future generations or our descendants or for the other creatures that inhabit the planet. And because they have shown that lack of morality, the public now has to try to be a moral guide.”

The board, which will oversee development in the inland port area, has argued that the land will develop with or without its direction and that it could actually be more sustainable under state control.

Several elementary and middle school-aged children were in attendance at the protest, where port opponents talked about climate change and environmental justice and even spoke at some points as if they were the animals and plants that could be affected by the port.

“They can’t raise their voice for themselves, [so] we felt like we were going to try and channel that and speak for them," Petersen said.

Aliyah Knighton, an 11-year-old West Valley resident who attended the protest, said she lives nearby the planned project area for the port and wants to help stop it.

“I came out today because I don’t want the inland port to be right around where I live,” she said. “My older brother, he has asthma, and I don’t want it to end up affecting him or my little sister.”

The port project faces not only mounting public opposition but also a lawsuit, which was filed by Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski last month. The city had always planned for this location to become an inland port, but Biskupski is challenging the state’s takeover of the land and its taxing and zoning authority.

The port board plans to reschedule its meeting, Conabee said, but no date has yet been set.

Whenever it is, opponents say they’ll be there to try and shut it down — though it’s likely that next time, they’ll be escorted out under public decorum rules.

“We are going to be here for a long time,” community activist Cristobal Villegas declared as the protest ended.

His fellow protesters cheered.