Utah inland port project continues to move forward after a ‘busy, busy’ summer and amid public disapproval

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) This aerial photo from June 2018 shows where the inland port will be built.

The Utah Inland Port Authority has had a “busy, busy summer,” Executive Director Jack Hedge said at the board’s quarterly meeting Wednesday, noting that the organization has signed a number of deals as part of its commitment to promote “sustainable, equitable and smart logistics investment.”

The entity is working to create a global import and export hub on a large chunk of land in Salt Lake City’s northwest side.

Among the deals is one made with Dominion Energy to explore programs and technologies associated with natural gas within the port’s jurisdictional area. Another with Rocky Mountain Power looks to create a sustainable energy supply there.

The latter agreement also aims to support the deployment of battery electric vehicles for trucking and cargo handling around the state, with the short-term effect of “reducing the amount of diesel emissions from existing operations,” Hedge said.

“So it will have a net beneficial effect on air quality, air emissions emitting from current operations out of the inland port and in the long term supporting the deployment of additional electric vehicles in that area,” he said.

The port authority also announced on Monday that it had signed a deal with Warehouse Exchange — an online marketplace that matches buyers and sellers of warehouse space around the country — in an effort to fill under-used warehouse space across the state.

The program will "facilitate platform access for the 220 million square feet of warehouse space spread across Utah’s Wasatch Front'' and will roll out over the coming weeks, the authority said in a news release.

The board is also working to create a community advisory council at the request of Democratic Sen. Luz Escamilla, who represents the community that will be most affected by the port planned for the Salt Lake City area.

Hedge said that board, the members of which are still to be announced, will advise authority staff on policies and issues that affect the communities nearest the port, with an eye toward improving quality of life and opportunities for those residents.

But despite its promises of environmental sustainability, his presentation appeared to do little to assuage the fears of the project’s opponents, who have long been concerned that the distribution hub development will increase truck, air and rail traffic and contribute to the state’s already dirty air as a result.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chelsie Kemper at a rally against the Inland Port at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020.

During the more than hour long public comment period, port opponents came out in droves again to express concerns that the development would contribute to climate change and facilitate the transfer of fossil fuels. And they argued that the authority’s planned sustainability plans don’t go nearly far enough to mitigate those detrimental effects.

“Your sustainability measures amount to using an eyedropper to put out a wildfire,” argued Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and an organizer with the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition. “You’re deluding yourself if you think that the minimal green window dressing the proposed inland port is draped in will have any impact on the enormous harm this taxpayer sponsored boondoggle will inflict.”

Several speakers pointed specifically to concerns with the port board’s satellite ports plan, which would spread the scope of the project beyond Salt Lake City with a number of distribution hubs placed around the state.

A recent Salt Lake Tribune analysis of forms submitted by eight counties as part of the satellite port designation process found several specifically mentioned coal in their proposals. And Stan Holmes, a member of the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition who has been closely following the satellite port project, said the authority’s promises of sustainability seem inadequate compared to the vision these county leaders appear to hold.

“Fossil fuel exports, especially coal, loom large in satellite port and other documents,” he told the board. “Emery County wants to quote ‘work on the Oakland Coal Port.’ Iron County would help Kane County get coal to a sea port. On behalf of Sevier County, UIPA board member [Tooter] Ogden officially pledged $20 million in CIB funds to bail out the bankrupt Oakland port developer. That’s sustainability?”

Ginger Chinn, managing director of business development for the port authority, reiterated in a briefing to the board on Wednesday that the authority is in the early phases of siting a satellite port and that a submission from a county doesn’t necessarily mean a distribution hub will be placed there.

So far, eight counties have signaled their interest in hosting a satellite port: Beaver, Carbon, Emery, Grand, Iron, Juab, San Juan and Wayne counties. Chinn said the authority is expecting to receive three more forms, from Weber, Box Elder and Tooele counties.

The authority is also moving into phase two of the designation process, she said, a process that will require select counties to conduct a more detailed market assessment and provide more information about concepts and incentive opportunities for development.

As part of that undertaking, Chinn said authority members have been going out to rural communities, meeting with businesses, and working to understand the freight movement in and out of the area.

“So really [we’re] doing a business rationale,” she said, “and we’re embarking on that phase right now.”

Once the authority decides which satellite ports to move forward with, Chinn said staff will come back to the board for approval to designate a plot as a port jurisdictional project area. After that, the authority will go back to local communities to conduct a public process.

The timeline for that process will differ based on location, she said, since different communities have different needs.

But even as the port project in Salt Lake City and across the state continues to move forward, several of the commenters who spoke on Wednesday continued to implore board members to kill the project altogether.

“Please reconsider your actions or leave your job; you can always leave,” Emily Alwortj said to board members, noting the broad opposition from the public displayed at the meeting. "Get another job. Move to a different state. Buy a flight on Elon Musk’s spaceship and go to Mars. I do not care. You need to stop doing this. No one likes this and you are making the public mad. Reconsider.”