A coalition of eastern Utah counties that banded together several years ago to create projects that would help get their mineral resources to markets has set its sights on a new development: a satellite inland port in Sevier County.
The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition voted unanimously earlier this month to begin exploring the feasibility of the concept, which members believe would help alleviate traffic and air quality concerns in the Wasatch Front region while bringing new jobs to rural Utah.
“There’s been a lot of discussion [about] trying to move some of this port out of Salt Lake City,” said Sevier County Commissioner Garth “Tooter” Ogden, who also sits on the Inland Port Authority Board and the seven county coalition. “I think it’d be beneficial to everybody involved if we could ... take advantage of this in these rural areas.”
The possible creation of a satellite port in Sevier County is part of a broader vision to expand the footprint of the inland port — a massive distribution hub development planned for Salt Lake City’s northwest side — from a single site in Utah’s capital to several locations across the state. To do so, the Inland Port Authority Board would first need to receive written consent from the governmental body of the new area or from the private landowner.
Representatives from Tooele, Weber, Box Elder and Millard counties have expressed support in the past for the so-called “hub-and-spoke model,” promising development-ready parcels of land and willing communities behind them if the port board brought a hub to their areas.
Jack Hedge, executive director of the Utah Inland Port, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday about whether other communities have expressed interest, either formally or informally.
Ogden said the creation of an inland port spoke in Sevier County would be ideal because of the area’s proximity to Interstates 70 and 15. A trucking port, as Seven County consultant Brian Barton described it at the meeting, could be constructed at one of several “strategic” (but as-yet undisclosed) locations from which trucks could easily import and export a variety of goods.
“We have agricultural projects here, we’ve got gypsum that’s here, we’ve got a lot of product that we move by truck and we do have a lot of trucks due to the coal industry here,” Ogden told The Salt Lake Tribune in an interview Tuesday.
When asked whether the satellite port would be used to facilitate the transfer of coal — which represents about two-thirds of Sevier County’s tax base — Ogden said the county would continue to move it to Levan, which is about 42 miles away, but said it’s unclear whether it would be shuttled through the port.
It wouldn’t make sense, though, to move coal “clear to Salt Lake City and send it somewhere else,” he said. “In my mind, I don’t see that that would even happen.”
The possibility that tax incentives would be used to push coal through Salt Lake City has long been a concern for those opposed to the inland port concept. But Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and a leader with the Stop the Polluting Port group, said dissidents would have the same concerns no matter what part of the state that happened in.
“We should not be subsidizing the extraction and export of fossil fuels when we’re facing a climate crisis that has been caused by our use of fossil fuels,” she told The Tribune on Tuesday, noting the decline in coal production over the past few years.
“Now if they’re talking about building satellite ports that are part of a new economy — one that is more oriented toward high-tech manufacturing or something that is sustainable, an endeavor that has sustainability as a component — that’s a totally different situation,” she continued, “and they could potentially have a win-win.”
Ogden stressed that the idea is in its “infancy” but noted that he sees the satellite port as a way to “diversify” Sevier County’s tax base as coal production changes. He also said that the Inland Port Authority Board has the ability to use tax incentives to impose strict standards for development that could lessen impacts on the environment, including requirements for solar panels or electric trucks.
The seven county coalition makes use of millions from Utah’s Permanent Community Impact Fund, a pool of federal mineral royalties set aside to help rural areas that struggle with small tax bases because they’re home to large swaths of public land. The 11-member community impact board, or CIB, that oversees that fund doles out the money to municipalities and special-service districts for projects that are supposed to address impacts associated with mineral extraction.
But the group has in recent years pursued ambitious projects geared toward getting resources to market, such as a proposed oil-moving rail line from the Uinta Basin to Price Canyon to replace the tanker trucks now plying Utah highways.
Advocates worry about the county group’s connections to the extraction industry. But they’re also concerned more generally about the satellite port concept, which they feel lacks specificity and transparency.
Envision Utah, in charge of conducting a public engagement process on the port, hosted one meeting exploring the issue earlier this spring. A second gathering scheduled to be held in August was shut down by fire marshals after protesters packed the meeting, which was moved to a police precinct after they publicized their intent to attend.
That meeting has yet to be rescheduled. But Stan Holmes, who serves as a volunteer board member on the executive committee of the Sierra Club’s Utah chapter, said the Seven County meeting showed “there is a lot afoot at the margins.”
“We’re concerned that there’s been very little attention paid to what’s on the margins, the periphery outside of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County for that matter,” he said. “We’re trying to find out what exactly is going on.”
Ogden didn’t name them but said during the meeting that several companies have already expressed interest in the satellite port concept in Sevier County, adding that the creation of one would fall in “real well” with Gov. Gary Herbert’s initiative to create 25,000 jobs in rural Utah over four years.
And the Sevier County commissioner said he’s heard from several of his constituents that they would appreciate the economic development and growth a satellite port could bring.
“I think if we approach it in the right direction, right way, it could bring real positive things, especially for rural Utah,” he told The Tribune. “We just need a little more tax base and people need jobs.”