Public expresses skepticism as inland port board plan promises sustainable development

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aerial photos of the Salt Lake Valley including the new prison under construction, inland port area, Kennecott Copper tailings pond, refineries and recent Bountiful fire scar as seen on Sept. 12, 2019.

During its first public meeting in seven months, the Utah Inland Port Authority Board received a briefing on a strategic plan that outlines a vision for an environmentally sustainable import and export hub on 16,000 acres of land largely located in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant.

The business plan, developed by the national consulting firm CPCS, is the result of months of public engagement and study and is meant to address long-standing concerns from residents about the port project’s potential negative impacts on the environment and nearby communities.

But differentiating the port as a “pioneer” of clean global logistics also presents a shrewd business opportunity for the state, said port Executive Director Jack Hedge.

However, much of the public comment on the proposal laid bare the mistrust some members of the public still harbor toward the project, which was created with little public input in the final hours of the 2018 legislative session.

Promises that the project will be “sustainable” or “green” aren’t enough, they said Wednesday, to alleviate community fears about the harms it will inflict on the Great Salt Lake and community near the inland port.

“The strategic business plan looks pretty and has a lot of nice words like ‘sustainable,’ ‘smart technology,’ ‘clean technology,’ ‘holistic,’ but the plan is basically void of any specifics,” said Johnny Vasic, executive director of Utah Physicians for Healthy Environment.

During the roughly hour and a half public comment portion of the meeting, residents also raised concerns about the air quality impacts of increased traffic, the human health consequences of pesticides used to control mosquitoes in the wetlands area, and about the impacts on the globally significant bird population near the Great Salt Lake.

They also raised skepticism about the port authority’s ability to deliver on its environmental promises without any land use authority over the largely privately owned parcels within the port boundary.

Hedge said the strategic plan wasn’t designed to address all the details. Instead, it’s meant to serve as a “strategy document” that provides a framework for decisions and that outlines the broad scope of the port authority’s values, mission and strategic direction for the next five years.

More specific policies aligning with the plan’s tenets will need to be adopted by the 11-member port board, he said.

The board is expected to take action on the plan at its next meeting on June 22.

The strategic document outlines the port’s intent to differentiate itself from other trading hubs by working to initiate sustainable development standards and promoting green industry practices to protect air and water quality and reduce traffic and emissions.

Ideas for how to get there include encouraging electric vehicle use, fuel-efficient trucks and rail; mitigating congestion through vehicle routing optimization; and establishing sustainable development standards for buildings and construction. The authority also plans to establish sustainable energy efficiency and emission standards, as well as water and light pollution measures and standards to protect wildlife, the plan states.

The board is targeting a scenario for development in which the authority promotes sustainability using tax differential funds “with the aim of enhancing economic, environmental and community outcomes." Under that plan, the project would add $1.2 billion to the state’s gross domestic product and create 58,781 jobs.

Amid concern from community members that the port isn’t economically necessary, the business plan also states that the import and export hub is “pivotal” for a state where more than a third of the economy depends on logistics. And the U.S. Department of Transportation has estimated that the state’s demand for cargo will increase by 104% over the next 25 years, according to planning documents.

Hedge said last week that the coronavirus pandemic has shown the importance of shortening supply chains into even sharper relief as states have struggled to obtain personal protective equipment and other goods needed to fight the virus.

He reiterated that view Wednesday, arguing that “getting goods here, getting them here in an efficient and effective manner is critically important” as the state rebuilds its economy.

Though public comment was largely critical of the plan, several of those who spoke expressed excitement about the prospect of an inland port and particularly for what it could do in rural communities.

Carbon County Commissioner Tony Martines indicated interest in his community hosting a satellite port, or an off-shoot of the Salt Lake City project, in an effort to create jobs in rural Utah and divert traffic and other negative impacts away from the Wasatch Front.

“We have a need for a change in this area,” he said of the county. “For the first time in 135 years there’s not an ounce of coal being mined in Carbon County. There is still coal being mined in Utah but nothing in Carbon County at this point. So we’re having to look at different things, reinventing ourselves.”

A satellite port could be part of that transformation, he said.

While board members heard a robust round of public comment, several interested members of the public said online that they struggled to get into the meeting, which was held on Zoom and required a pre-registration online to speak.

Inland Port Board Chairman James Rogers asked authority staff to reach out to those who had reported trouble to ensure their questions could get answered.

Rogers also said that board members are continuing to soliciting comments on the business plan ahead of their next meeting on June 22. Anyone with input can fill out an online form at inlandportauthority.utah.gov/business-plan, call 801-538-8950 or email Taneesa Wright at taneesawright@utah.gov.