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As Utah’s inland port inks more cargo deals, opponents plead for transparency

Officials insist train-to-truck transfers will cut down on pollution, but critics aren’t buying it.

(Ed Kosmicki | Special to The Tribune) Event organizer Deeda Seed decries the state's plan of an inland port at a news conference near a recently completed Amazon fufillment center Thursday, June 10, 2021. In the background is one of many huge distribution center under construction in the area. About three dozen people attended the conference listening to five speakers depsite gusty winds that elimated a banner the group hoped to display.

As the Utah Inland Port Authority unveils another California cargo deal and plans for a new rail facility, anti-port organizers are again decrying a process they say is shrouded in secrecy.

The UIPA issued a news release Tuesday announcing a partnership with the Port of Long Beach to “improve the flow of cargo to and from the major California gateway and the Utah logistics system.” The plan involves building “transloading” capacity to move shipping containers between trains and trucks.

“Working directly with the Port of Long Beach creates a synergy and stability that opens opportunities for Utah businesses to move goods more efficiently,” UIPA Executive Director Jack Hedge said in the release.

The authority also announced a transloading deal with California’s Port of Oakland last month. In both cases, the UIPA touts its “focus” on “environmental protections.” It also asserts the train-to-truck systems will reduce road congestion and improve emissions.

Members of the Stop the Polluting Port coalition and other environmental groups disagree.

“In a nutshell, the port authority is contemplating wasting millions of our tax dollars,” said Deeda Seed, a member of the coalition, “to build infrastructure that will help California ports offload their pollution to Utah at our taxpayers’ expense.”

The UIPA board will hold its next quarterly meeting at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, June 16. Members of the public can participate virtually via Zoom.

Ahead of that meeting, the anti-port coalition held a news conference Thursday at the site of a new Amazon fulfillment center — and next to another massive warehouse under construction — on the northern end of the 16,000-acre port located in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant.

Amid noise from excavators and semitrucks driving down the adjoining road, the group called on port officials to be more transparent about their plans.

“The fast-talking director of the port authority tries to convince people that the proposed Utah port will be green,” Seed said, “but he gives few details because they don’t exist.”

The UIPA’s news release about its Long Beach partnership notes that “reducing air pollution and improving energy efficiency are key components of the agreement” and that the two ports will work together on “emerging and innovative” fuel technologies. It did not provide further information.

Organizers with the anti-port coalition pointed out that converting thousands of open acres into an array of warehouses, parking lots and travel corridors isn’t exactly environmentally friendly, especially given the amount of emissions that inevitably would follow the thousands of train cars and cargo trucks likely to visit the commerce hub.

“The port authority is trying to sell the public the idea that trains going to the port will take trucks off the road and make our air cleaner,” said Thomas Nelson, a board member with Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, “but there’s no evidence to support that claim.”

UIPA’s news releases about its transloading facilities do not mention how much the California deals will cost. Gov. Spencer Cox signed an “infrastructure bank” bill into law in March that ships $75 million in state funding to projects within the port authority’s jurisdiction.

Ahead of the UIPA board’s last quarterly meeting in March, coalition members obtained budget documents that proposed $8 million for site improvements, $4.6 million for infrastructure improvements, and $690,000 to purchase property.

“We suspected it has something to do with this transloading facility,” Seed said in an interview Thursday, but added that she has been unable to confirm those conjectures.

The port authority removed the multimillion-budget adjustment documents from its website and meeting agenda just before that latest board meeting.

When asked for comment, a UIPA spokesperson said Thursday evening that those “funding requests are not tied to agreements with either” California port.

“The funding outlined in the line item budgets,” said Jill Flygare with UIPA, “are part of the [port’s] mission and drive towards more efficient and sustainable logistics.”

Still, Seed said, interactions with port representatives have not been forthcoming.

“They’re starting to spend significant chunks of money,” Seed said, “but really, we don’t know what it is [for].”

The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine shows a note on the UIPA website that the board “anticipated having a public hearing” to amend the current budget during its March meeting. However, because both The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News stopped printing daily newspapers in 2021, the authority did not meet state requirements for noticing that meeting.

As of Thursday evening, an agenda for the board’s meeting this month has not been posted. But a legal notice published in The Tribune’s weekly print edition notes that board members will hold public hearings next week about adopting the inland port’s 2021-22 budget and amending its 2020-21 budget.

The coalition is calling on the board to offer more transparency about its expenditures and provide ample time for the public to review and comment on where taxpayer money is going.

“[We plan to ask] that they tell us about these things,” Seed said, “and allow for us a 60-day comment period at the very least so we can respond thoughtfully to what they’re proposing.”

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