Utah Highway Patrol officers carried one person out of an Inland Port Authority Board meeting Thursday and ejected several others as activists wearing surgical masks jeered and blew whistles in an effort to disrupt the board’s work.
During nearly two hours at the state Capitol, the body’s 11 members conducted little business that will significantly move forward development of the controversial international distribution hub planned for a massive portion of Salt Lake City’s northwest side.
The board did, however, make several administrative changes, including appointing Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers as its new chair and West Valley Assistant City Manager Nicole Cottle as its vice chair. The authority also heard public comment from dozens of members of the public, all of whom were opposed to the project and many whom wore stickers emblazoned with their mission: Stop the Polluting Port.
“No port! No port! No port!” they chanted at one point, after raising their hands to indicate the mass disapproval of the project.
It was, as Stop the Polluting Port leader Deeda Seed described it, “a room full of people who hate this idea.”
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 and the environment in the area near the Great Salt Lake, a fragile ecosystem and globally significant hotspot for migratory birds.
The Salt Lake City area, where the port is planned to be built, was recently ranked among the worst U.S. cities for the highest number of excess health impacts from outdoor air pollution. Several members of the public recounted the impacts to their wellbeing as a result of poor air quality.
“You are literally killing me already,” said Lou McKee, an indigenous woman who noted that air quality impacts in the valley tend to disproportionately impact people of color and that this project will exacerbate those effects. “My blood will be on your hands.”
Members of the public also had harsh words for those on the inland port board, which is tasked with overseeing development of about 16,000 acres in the northwest side of Salt Lake County. They were characterized at one point as “villains” and by another person as “cowards.”
Rogers, who was appointed Thursday to a one-year term on the inland port board, recognized what a “thankless” job it can be but told reporters after the meeting that he feels he needs to bring the concerns of his west residents, who will be impacted by the development, to the table.
“I mean, come on, who wants to be the chair of the inland port?” he asked. “I don’t think anyone. But I think for the concerns of my residents, I need to be there. I need to be the one where they can see that, yes, my concerns are being brought to the board, they’re hearing me.”
He replaces Salt Lake Chamber CEO Derek Miller, who has become the face in recent months of the unpopular and controversial project.
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.
In the midst of several protests — including one this summer that turned violent and culminated in eight arrests as activists clashed with police at the Salt Lake Chamber building — leaders have promised to alleviate any negative impacts as a result of the project.
On Thursday, newly-appointed inland port Executive Director Jack Hedge reiterated those commitments, promising to build a “world-class” port that’s done “right from the beginning” through a process that takes into consideration air, water and noise pollution and other possible impacts of the development on communities.
But many were skeptical about the feasibility and political will of actually creating an environmentally friendly port.
“A clean, green or sustainable port is a farce,” said Georgie Corkery, membership and outreach coordinator with Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment. “It is a fairytale.”
Hedge’s other task, as he sees it, is to help people understand where the project is at. With a first draft of a business plan outlining how the project will develop expected to be released early next year and the first phase of public engagement just completed last week, Hedge said after the meeting that development is a long way from moving forward.
“I think the misunderstanding about where we are in the planning process is critical,” he said. “I think we’ve got to do a better job of letting people know where we are and what we’re doing and what our process is. That’s my takeaway [from the meeting] is people don’t know where we are yet.”
Despite efforts to alleviate the public’s concerns, it appeared unlikely Thursday that there was anything board members could say or do that would help sway members of the public who are dead-set against the project.
As Hedge outlined his commitments to environmental sustainability, a group stood up and left the meeting, sounding their whistles as they walked past the Highway Patrol officers on hand to control the meeting.
“Lies, lies, lies!” one woman called out as she left the room.