Heather Dove: The Utah Inland Port Authority must be more transparent about its environmental impact

Utahns have a right to know the full details of the environmental damage that is being inflicted on us with our tax dollars.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Weber County property slated for an inland port on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023.

As a 16+ year advocate for birds and preserving wildlife habitat, I am deeply concerned about the Utah Inland Port Authority’s (UIPA) push to create ports — and the industrial development that comes with them — next to and in Great Salt Lake Basin wetlands. These areas are more fragile than ever before, given the crisis we are facing with Great Salt Lake. But just as UIPA is rushing to create these areas, they are also clamping down on public engagement and refusing to adequately answer questions about the harm that will be caused.

Recently, I spent the entire day trying to give UIPA input on the plan to create an inland port site less than half a mile from the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. I prepared comments, drove over an hour each way to Brigham City to attend UIPA’s public board meeting, sat through the two-hour meeting and patiently waited to make my comments.

But as seems their practice now, UIPA found a way to shut down its critics. They limited public comment to only those from the immediate area, spoke themselves for much of the time that was allotted for the public and announced that, from now on, they will not be taking comments from those attending virtually.

This curtailment of public engagement comes at a time when, now more than ever, the public needs to know what UIPA is up to, as the agency is handing our public funds to developers in multiple locations very quickly and with no discernible public benefit.

UIPA staff have repeatedly said that these ports will be built in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox recently said these ports would be the most environmentally friendly ones in the country. But there’s no evidence that this is happening. Instead the opposite seems to be true.

UIPA only conducts a cursory “environmental assessment” for each proposed project area. An example of how insufficient this analysis is can be seen in Box Elder County where there was no mention of the close proximity of the project area to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge — only that it is “to the west of Brigham City.”

My question for UIPA is: How does UIPA plan to mitigate the impact of all the destruction of the wetlands along the southern and eastern shores of the Great Salt Lake that has been approved or is in the pipeline for approval? How will you be mitigating for the further degradation of our air quality? Who will do this mitigation? And who will pay for it?

UIPA likes to say it has no control over what local governments do, that it can only incentivize businesses. I have not heard mention of one incentive for mitigation strategies. Since its inception in 2018, UIPA has intermittently made vague references to plans for reducing environmental impacts but none of these mitigation measures have been implemented.

In May 2020, we heard about Rocky Mountain Power and UIPA beginning to develop a 10-year power use forecast with a plan to utilize renewable energy, yet it appears there have been no further concrete developments on this front.

In October 2020, UIPA announced they were signing an agreement with SecurSpace to develop overnight parking facilities for the multitudes of trucks that move in and out of the Port, yet to date there is still no such facility available and trucks continue to park overnight in west side neighborhoods.

The stormwater pollution plan is inadequate and there is no requirement for permeable surfaces. Instead there are miles of new impermeable surfaces and millions of square feet of new warehouses, each with hundreds of bays for diesel trucks producing significant amounts of polluted stormwater and polluting air emissions.

Lighting at night has not been addressed.

Mosquito-breeding Kentucky blue grass has not been replaced with low water, native plants.

Instead of protection for the so-called “natural area,” warehouse roads are being built right up against it — in violation of the 400-foot buffer — and there isn’t full protection for the undeveloped land beyond the road.

Instead of an environmentally friendly, state of the art port as promised, we have miles and miles of greenhouse gas-emitting construction and a giant new urban heat island. I could go on and on.

UIPA is a publicly funded state authorized entity. Utahns have a right to know the full details of the environmental damage that is being inflicted on us with our tax dollars. The environment deserves strong protections.

Heather Dove

Heather Dove is president of Great Salt Lake Audubon. She is passionate about birds, habitat and healthy environments for wildlife and people.