Utah Inland Port meeting erupts in protest, with dozens ejected by officers and one arrested

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Opponents of the proposed inland port are escorted out of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board meeting by Utah Highway Patrol officers at the Capitol, June 5, 2019. The Inland Port Authority Board had to cancel its meeting last month after a group of protesters took over the meeting.

Chaos erupted at the Inland Port Authority Board’s monthly meeting Wednesday, when nearly a dozen armed Utah Highway Patrol officers forcefully removed protesters opposed to the project from a state Capitol committee room and ultimately arrested one environmental activist.

It happened in the first few seconds of the first meeting since the board’s last meeting in April was shut down by activists.

“Abort the port!” chanted the mostly young protesters, who wore surgical masks with black X’s on them as they moved to the front of the room. “People over profit!”

Bodies flailed and shouts erupted in the small meeting room as the activists were quickly escorted out of the meeting for violating the board’s rules of decorum and board members were escorted into a back room.

Ethan Petersen, an activist with the group Civil Riot, had handcuffed himself to a door handle in the back of the room and resisted police, who wrestled him to the ground and carried him horizontally to the elevator in handcuffs.

He was later booked into Salt Lake County Jail for resisting arrest and interfering with an arresting officer, according to Sgt. Nick Street, a spokesman for Utah Highway Patrol. Three others were cited, but not arrested, for interrupting an official meeting, Street said.

Activists have raised concerns about the possible impacts the inland port — a distribution hub planned for a massive area of land in Salt Lake City’s northwest side — could have on air quality and wildlife in an already fragile ecosystem. The planned development is expected to bring increased rail, truck and air traffic along with tailpipe emissions.

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.

Members of the inland port board resumed the meeting after a brief recess, acting mostly as though they did not hear the chanting of protesters outside drifting into the room from the hallway, though it occasionally made it difficult for board members to hear one another.

“We’re going to rise up like water,” the protesters sang outside, hitting their hands against the doors in time with the beat. “We’re going to shut this crisis down!”

The board proceeded to adopt an $8 million budget for 2019-2020 fiscal year, with $506,680 budgeted for consulting fees and professional services, $2.6 million planned for site improvements or preparation costs of development and $2.4 million for publicly owned infrastructure and improvements.

Protesters came quietly back inside. But they started chanting again soon afterward and were escorted out a second time.

During the course of its meeting, the board also chose a new executive director, who was not present on Wednesday. Jack Hedge, who now serves as the director of cargo and industrial real estate for the Port of Los Angeles, was chosen after an extensive search and was the board’s “No. 1 pick,” said board member James Rogers.

“I am honored to take on this new role and to work with the UIPA Board and all interested stakeholders,” Hedge said in a prepared statement provided by the port board. “The Utah Inland Port is an important project, and we must be strategic and innovative to solve the growth challenges that will impact the state of Utah.”

Hedge will replace acting director Christopher Conabee, on the job since January, and will assume his new position later this month. He will receive a base salary of $225,000 per year.

During the public comment period of the meeting, the board heard opposition from several more port critics, who continued to raise concerns about air quality and environmental damage in the face of climate change and expressed frustration that they feel their concerns have not been taken into account.

“I have been to your public meetings with Envision Utah where every speaker stood up and said, ‘We don’t want this’ and they’ve given their reasons,” said Monica Hilding. “What is going on? Do you not listen? Do you not hear all the people here? Did you not hear the singing that went on outside here?”

The board also heard from a handful of proponents of the project, who cited the economic opportunities of the port, discounted environmental concerns and derided the tactics of protesters.

“I’d like to commend you for dealing with what you’re dealing with,” Jeff Hartley, a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry, told the board, noting that he believes the project is a “good economic idea.”

In a statement sent to The Salt Lake Tribune after the meeting, Derek Miller, chairman of the Inland Port Authority Board, thanked the members of the public who “attended and provided comment in a lawful and respectful manner and for those that continue to engage and participate in the public process and public outreach forums.”

Deeda Seed, a leader with the Stop the Polluting Port group (which did not participate in the protest), said she thought this meeting represented a turning point in resistance to the project.

“There was so much opposition at this meeting,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune afterward. “I think this was the most public outcry of any meeting I’ve been to and I’ve been to all of them.”

The port project faces not only mounting public opposition but also a lawsuit, which was filed by Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski earlier this year. 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.