Inland port opponents call for health impact study on massive development

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stop the Polluting Port Coalition member David Scheer delivers a letter, Sept. 18, 2019, to the Utah Senate's chief of staff Mark Thomas calling for funding of a comprehensive health impact assessment, surrounded by other coalition members in the Senate offices. The coalition called for the House and Senate leaders to fund a comprehensive health impact assessment of the proposed inland port development within the 16,000-acre area in Salt Lake City controlled by the Utah Inland Port Authority.

Members of an inland port opposition group gathered at the Utah Capitol Wednesday to call on state lawmakers to fund a health impact assessment within the 16,000-acre area set to one day become a global distribution hub.

Activists have long worried about how the port — which is expected to bring increased rail, truck and air traffic along with tailpipe emissions to Salt Lake City’s northwest side — would affect wildlife, air quality and the environment in the area near the Great Salt Lake. But some 18 months after lawmakers created the project through legislation last year, members of the Stop the Polluting Port coalition say they have no fewer questions than they did at the outset.

“These concerns remain unaddressed, the public has been given conflicting information, and our community has no assurance that a comprehensive analysis of the health impacts of the proposed development will be conducted,” the group wrote in a letter delivered to House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams.

On Wednesday, they hand delivered that message to legislative leadership and requested lawmakers’ “full support” and funding for a Health Impact Assessment, a process defined by the World Heath Organization that they noted has been used throughout the world “to evaluate the consequences of proposed projects and policies on public health before they are implemented.”

They want that assessment to be overseen by a committee made up not only of members of the Inland Port Authority Board, which oversees development in the port project area, but also of scientists, affected governmental agencies, industry and conservation groups, major landowners in the port area and residents of the communities that may be affected.

And they requested that the study be conducted before the development proceeds any further.

“It is only common sense to ask questions about the potential health effects of emissions from thousands of additional trucks, trains and cars, the impact of these vehicles on traffic congestion and noise levels in the neighborhoods, stormwater runoff into sensitive wetlands from thousands of acres of building and paving, and light pollution that may affect nearby homes and wildlife habitat that is also vital to our communities’ health,” the group wrote in its letter.

Proponents of the inland port, which has been billed as the state’s largest-ever economic project, say the creation of the distribution hub where goods can clear customs and then be processed and distributed will connect Utah companies to international markets and boost the state’s economy.

Leaders have also promised that they will work to alleviate any negative impacts as a result of the project — a sentiment expressed by newly-appointed Executive Director Jack Hedge in a statement Wednesday that did not specifically address the demand for an environmental health impact statement.

“We appreciate those who are bringing ideas to the discussion and are committed to working with the community to mitigate the impact of development in this area," he wrote in an email. "While the market will determine what is or isn’t built, the Utah Inland Port Authority will insert the public’s values into how it’s done.”

Hedge did not immediately respond to a request for more detailed comment on the possibility of a health impact study or the progress on an environmental impact study, which board members have long promised.

In a statement, Utah Senate spokeswoman Aundrea Peterson also did not speak to the health impact study but referenced a bill the Legislature passed earlier this year, sponsored by city mayoral candidate and state Sen. Luz Escamilla, directing the Department of Environmental Quality to establish a baseline and monitor the potential environmental impacts of the inland port.

“Collecting the data, which will be available online, will help us work together to implement evidence-based policies to mitigate possible adverse effects on our environment along the Wasatch Front,” she said.

A spokesman for the House of Representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

Despite assurances that officials are taking the environmental aspects of the port seriously, opponents worry about the health of the residents who live nearby, speculating they will be particularly vulnerable to a variety of impacts from the port including air pollutants, frequent noise from increased traffic and light pollution in their backyards.

“It is unconscionable to risk the health of these people and their children without even assessing the risks so that these can be effectively addressed,” said David Scheer, an architect and urban planner based in Salt Lake City, during a news conference at the Capitol.

But Salt Lake City residents and group members also sought to broaden the conversation beyond its sometimes hyper-local focus by couching the port within a global climate change conversation.

“The climate catastrophe before us is no joke," said Salt Lake City resident Robert Broadhead. “It’s basic reality based on facts and not alternative facts. Building an inland port offers us nothing but more of the same. More trucks, more trains, more congestion, more blight and more air pollution.”

Stop the Polluting Port is made up of several groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, SLC Air Protectors and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. The group is separate from Civil Riot, an anti-port group that emphasizes direct action and has organized several protests in recent months that have culminated in arrests.