Activists call for halt of construction in inland port until environmental effects are studied

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jonny Vasic, Utah Physicians for Heathy Environment, speaks at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Wednesday Oct. 16, 2019. Speakers called for a halt to construction on new warehouses (subsidized by a tax break from Salt Lake City) until a comprehensive analysis of the impacts to our air, water, and wildlife habitat is conducted.

The remote spot in Salt Lake City now is reached only by a dirt road. Nothing but tall tufts of grass on empty land and marshes separate it from the Great Salt Lake.

Some antelope even ran nearby as environmental activists gathered there Wednesday to protest newly launched construction of 6 million square feet of warehouse space before studying how it and other inland port projects may affect the area’s environment and wildlife.

“We need to know what the environmental consequences of it will be,” said Deeda Seed, senior Utah field campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity. “What we’re asking for today is a halt to construction until we have answers to our questions.”

Heather Dove, president of Great Salt Lake Audubon, said the lake is a globally important area for 10 million migrating birds. She complained that no plans have been developed for such things as handling extra runoff from the inland port that could bring toxics to wild areas or flood-sensitive nesting areas.

“Uncontrolled, untreated runoff will introduce toxic pollutants to the wetlands. These can include antifreeze, grease, oil and heavy metals from cars, trucks, rails, fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals from landscaping and mosquito abatement,” she said. “We cannot risk such destruction from this man-made threat. That is something we have power to control.”

She said allowing the recently begun construction in the area before studying environmental effects is “reckless and reprehensible.”

Jonny Vasic, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, pointed out one possible problem for humans when a long construction truck drove by creating a dust cloud that temporarily engulfed the news conference.

That “is a good example of fugitive dust, which can pose serious health risks to our lungs and cardiovascular systems,” he said.

“We demand a reputable, legitimate third-party health assessment study,” Vasic added. “The fact that this hasn’t been done yet is borderline criminal and immoral and completely negligent on the state Legislature’s part.”

Ursula Jochmann, an activist with Stop the Polluting Port, said, “The fact that they have not done any kind of impact study yet and have begun construction is beyond horrible. This is, to me, an ecological disaster.”

Georgie Corkery, also with Stop the Polluting Port, said activists feel business interests and politicians are pushing the inland port against the desires of most people, and don’t care about anything besides economic development.

“We are only here due to the fact that public outcry, concern and protest are not being heard,” she said. “The Inland Port Authority Board dances around details and has provided the public with none despite the fact that they are building.”

It is not the first time the groups have asked for such a health study and likely will not be the last. They said they plan to attend an Inland Port Authority meeting on Thursday to push for it again.

Last month, the groups also gave letters to legislative leaders seeking 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.

They had wanted that study to be performed before any further development. Now that construction on the big warehouse project has begun west of Amazon’s distribution center, they want it stopped while such a study occurs.

Proponents of the inland port, which has been billed as the state’s largest-ever economic development 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 promised to alleviate any negative impacts as a result of the project.

Seed said at the news conference Wednesday, “It is time for some honesty from our state leaders. They want to force us to accept a project that is unwanted by the people and completely unnecessary that will make our air quality worse, harm public health and congest our freeways. The best economic stimulus we could ever have would be for clean air, clean energy and a clean future for everybody.”