Inland port meeting brings out supporters, dissenters of massive distribution hub development

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

During the first portion of the Utah Inland Port Authority Board’s quarterly meeting on Wednesday, a group of government economic development leaders and rural business interests took the chance to extol the many benefits a satellite port would bring to their ailing economies.

“We couldn’t be more excited about anything,” said Frank Nichols, a real estate developer in Cedar City. “Maybe the biggest thing that could happen to Southern Utah would be the inland port. It’s much bigger than most people can even dream.”

But the nearly two hour public comment portion that ended the meeting largely struck a different tone, as resident after resident in the Salt Lake Valley continued to unspool a list of concerns ranging from climate change and air quality to impacts on the west side community nearest the main import and export hub planned for the capital city’s northwest side.

One speaker called the proposed development a “carbon bomb,” while another described it as a clear effort “to end civilization and to foster the extinction of humans.” And Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, called on board members to resign their posts “as a gesture that you accept empirical evidence, science and reality.”

While they have wildly different views, the two sides share similar values, noted Dorothy Owen, chairperson of the Westpointe Community Council — namely “our assets being our children, our concern for the land [and] our appreciation for our good quality of life.”

But although state law requires written consent from a governmental body or private landowner before an area can be folded into the port authority’s jurisdictional land, Salt Lake City residents never got a chance to weigh in on the proposal to create a massive distribution hub in their community.

The bill creating the Salt Lake City inland port on a large swath of land near the Great Salt Lake passed through the state Legislature with little debate in the final hours of the 2018 legislative session and over the objections of leaders in the capital city.

“You have to be shocked at the big discrepancy in response to the board by the AOGs [association of governments] in the rural areas and by the local area here in Salt Lake City,” Owen said to the board on Wednesday. “Perhaps as a staff you can sit and ask yourselves what is being done with the AOGs that their response is so different than what you’re having with Salt Lake City, and maybe we can talk about how that can change.”

The Inland Port Authority Board took little action during the meeting on Wednesday but received a progress update from Executive Director Jack Hedge, as well as a report from the Utah Association of Counties about the ongoing process to site a yet-to-be-determined number of satellite ports across the state.

Patrick Mullen, with the Utah Association of Counties, told the board Wednesday that 10 counties have so far submitted “asset mapping” forms to the port authority that describe the picture for development in their communities.

“This is really the first step in understanding community assets, needs and concerns,” he noted.

In making their case for siting a satellite port in their area, the counties largely point to their access to airports, major highways and sometimes freight as positioning them best as the site of a future global distribution hub.

The port authority is currently sorting through those forms, which are all expected to be in by the end of the year, and will then move into the next phase, which will require select counties to conduct a more detailed market assessment and provide more information about concepts and incentive opportunities for development.

“As next steps, it’s continuing this dialogue with counties to discuss their key questions, understanding local priorities and most importantly I think taking into account what those local concerns are,” Mullen noted.

Proponents of the satellite port model say it would address some of the concerns environmental advocates have raised in opposition to the project planned for Salt Lake City. Dispersing development would reduce emissions and traffic in Salt Lake County, they say, while bringing good jobs to overlooked communities.

“The comments that are being made by many of the people in the Salt Lake Valley about negative impacts on land, air pollution and traffic only reinforce the need for satellite hubs,” said Emery County Commissioner Lynn Sitterud, who was among the rural lawmakers who peppered words of support for the satellite port framework in between opposition of the project at large from Salt Lake City residents.

Sitterud is among the proponents of creating a nearly 9,000 acre satellite port in Green River on a combination of city-owned, public and private lands — a type of development that would, he argued, “take the traffic and pollution out of the Salt Lake Valley and take it to areas outside of the valley where we have clean air and we have people needing those jobs.”

But despite the broad support outside the Wasatch Front, opponents in the Salt Lake Valley remain skeptical of the satellite port framework. They argue it would simply spread negative impacts around the state, and they also are concerned that the ports would be used to facilitate the transfer of fossil fuels.

In light of those and other concerns about the development, several of those who spoke in opposition to the project on Wednesday called on the board to conduct a Human Health Risk Assessment in order to examine the potential public health consequences of the port.

“Public money and public health is at stake,” argued Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and an organizer with the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition. “Thus your responsibility as public servants is to get the facts about the impacts of this development. Lives literally depend on it.”

As part of the health risk assessment, members of the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition said in a news release that they want computer modeling of the amount of vehicle, rail and air traffic generated by the port at various stages of its development.

They also want to see the creation of an emissions inventory and distribution model “based on a quantitative and qualitative analysis of pollution generated by these sources” and an assessment “on the impact of mortality, life expectancy and frequency of diseases known to be associated with PM 2.5 air pollutants.”

The port authority board’s next meeting is scheduled for March 17.