Salt Lake City mayoral candidates attack David Garbett’s plan to move oil refinery as empty hype

Salt Lake City mayoral candidate David Garbett is making waves among some of his opponents over a proposal to improve air quality by relocating the refinery on the northern border of the city and the power plant near the state Fairpark.

He understands it may be difficult to move them out of the valley, Garbett said, but thinks the city could incentivize that goal by preparing plans for both areas with new development and offering low-interest loans to anyone willing to “purchase, remediate, and redevelop those locations.”

“These are private entities,” he acknowledged. “I can’t force them to move. But I can have conversations. We can do calculations. We can get into that territory of seeing what it would take, what would be involved in making that happen.”

Though the candidate is careful to note that he hasn’t made this idea a campaign “promise,” he’s facing heavy criticism from some of his challengers, who view his proposal at best as a pipe dream and at worst as a scheme to trick voters into casting their ballot based on empty promises.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Former Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance lawyer David Garbett launches his campaign for Salt Lake City mayor, Feb. 12, 2019.

Businessman David Ibarra went so far as to call the plan a “desperate” and “sensationalized” effort to gain votes.

“ ‘I’m going to have a refinery leave’ is frankly a ridiculous way to capture folks that are very interested or very passionate about getting the air cleaned up,” he continued. “To achieve that, it ought to be done in a way that is doable.”

[Special coverage: Read more about the mayoral candidates and where they stand on five issues.]

Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, in turn, called Garbett’s proposal a political “exploitation” of residents’ legitimate concerns over the city’s poor air quality.

“Anybody who’s thought about how do we fix our air has thought about the refinery, and I absolutely get why that’s such an appealing idea,” she said. “We’ve been looking at it for probably decades, but at least the decade that I’ve been working on this, I know this has been talked about and it’s been thoroughly set aside as an impossibility.”

Mendenhall, who currently serves as chairwoman of the state Air Quality Board and who got her entrance into politics through nonprofit air quality work, noted in a recent Facebook post criticizing Garbett’s plan that the city has had environmentally progressive mayors for 20 years. They would have attempted to move the buildings, she wrote, if “it were legally or financially feasible.”

“Either he doesn’t know that he can’t deliver on his own idea, which ought to be disqualifying, or he doesn’t care, and that ought to be disqualifying,” Mendenhall said of the policy plan in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall launches her campaign for mayor on Sunday, April 14, 2019. She has a background in the nonprofit sector, working previously with the clean-air advocacy group Breathe Utah as its policy director and interim executive director.

Donna Kemp Spangler, the communications director for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, noted that it would be outside of the city’s and even the state’s powers to move the refinery and power plant out of the city, since they are owned by private businesses.

“That would be a company decision,” she said, adding that it would likely be expensive for those organizations to relocate the pipeline and other organizational structures built around them.

Spencer Hall, a spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power, noted that the company hasn’t had detailed conversations with Garbett and raised similar concerns about costs.

“Moving the plant isn’t going to be economically in the best interest of our customers,” he said. “But we’re open to discussions with him and we want to keep improving air quality in the Salt Lake Valley.”

Hall added that Salt Lake City’s Gadsby Power Plant has already been converted to natural gas and operates mostly in peak times, meaning it’s not “a significant contributor” to air quality problems in the Wasatch Front, he said.

Marathon Petroleum, which operates the refinery in Salt Lake City, did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

Despite the difficulties in implementing a relocation, Garbett, who worked for 10 years as a staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, argues that the city wouldn’t be the first to do something “big and bold” like what he’s proposing. The former Geneva Steel plant in Utah County was similarly dismantled and remediated, he said, and is today “the growing and vibrant Vineyard.”

“I don’t accept this concept that those are permanent fixtures and that a mayor shouldn’t even bother,” he said.

While true that Geneva’s closure in 2001 led to significantly less pollution in Utah Valley, its demise was caused by financial losses ending in bankruptcy — not because of any government action in pursuit of clean air.

Not all of the eight candidates for Salt Lake City mayor are criticizing Garbett’s proposal as outlandish. Former Salt Lake City Councilman Stan Penfold said he thinks moving the refinery and power plant out of the city is actually a “good long-term vision,” though he said he would like to see more detailed numbers on what it would actually take financially.

“If we’re looking at long-term air quality solutions, I think it has to be something we put on the table for consideration,” he said. “And if we don’t know what those costs are, there’s probably some value in at least figuring out if we can find out what it looks like.”

But those who are frustrated with Garbett say that they have another reason to worry, following a mailer sent in the past few weeks to Salt Lake City residents by a political action committee that’s in support of his plan and makes it appear as though other candidates are, too.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mayoral candidates are taking issue with a mailer from David Garbett that implies support for his campaign.

The flyer, paid for by Family PAC, uses out-of-context quotes from Ibarra, Mendenhall and state Sen. Luz Escamilla to make the case that “even the other candidates agree that David Garbett’s plan to move polluters away from Salt Lake is the right thing to do.”

The quote from Mendenhall, for example, states that “it’s something every candidate should want to do” — but leaves off the end of her comment to FOX 13 that “it’s not something any responsible candidate can or should promise."

“When I confronted him about his mailer that the PAC did, Family PAC, I expected him to hear my frustration that my quote was manipulated into an endorsement of a plan that he actually doesn’t have yet,” Mendenhall told The Tribune. “And instead he defended it. And that was baffling.”

Escamilla’s campaign said in a statement that she has received the mailer at her home and believes it is “misleading.” Ibarra also said the quote attributed to him on the flyer “isn’t exactly how I intended it.”

Garbett, asked about the mailers, stressed that he was not involved in putting them together but countered that the candidates’ statements are ultimately accurate.

“I just feel like, hey, what do you want me to do about it?” he said. “It’s not like I sent it out. If they feel like that was a misquote, well then they do, but the quote is there for people to go look at.”

Lowell Snow, listed on the PAC’s statement of organization as its primary officer, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Mike McCauley, named as the committee’s chief financial officer/treasurer, said he didn’t have any comment on the flyer since he only handles the finances.