Tribune editorial: Our lungs aren’t ready for the inland port

The inland port has been billed as the largest economic development project in Utah, but at this point it is little more than a concept, a map and a group that is supposed to figure the rest out.

How much will it cost? Who will pay for it? When will it be built? What companies will it draw? How many people will it employ? Will they be high- or low-paying jobs?

Those and other good questions await the Inland Port Commission, but there is one looming obstacle the governor and Legislature still must face, and it is breathtaking.

If this plan is successful, we will see large increases in truck and train traffic. Hundreds of diesel engines could be added to the airshed. We also are told to expect a jump in cargo plane traffic. Rail, on-highway diesel trucks and operations at the airport are already responsible for about a fifth of the air pollution along the Wasatch Front. If we really are talking about a project with precedent-setting scale, we will also be doubling down on air pollution when we’re already maxed out.

Our current pollution problem isn't just a matter of violating federal standards, which it does, or diminishing public perceptions, which it also does. The air pollution in the Wasatch Front is literally killing people. The research only grows more certain. Even at current levels, it's bumping off the vulnerable.

If we go ahead with this port without addressing that, more children will miss recess. Hospitals will see more respiratory cases. And the people most affected are those in west Salt Lake City and east Magna, who can legitimately say this is happening without their consent.

What to do? In a word, offsets.

The governor and Legislature have to come up with ways to compensate. We have Tier III fuels and cleaner cars coming, but we were already betting on those to solve our current problem, not the one the port is creating. We may need to be more aggressive with California-style regulations that require more electric vehicles. We also have to require more stringent building standards. Buildings produce 30 percent of the air pollution, and they don't get replaced as fast as cars. New construction has to be the best available technology, a tough requirement when rising housing costs are already threatening to undermine the economy.

We will hear a lot of talk about building a "green" port, and that's good. But there is no scenario where it is anything close to zero emissions. We need aggressive countermeasures on other pollution sources.

The politicians who willed this port into existence carry the responsibility to reduce its harm. We need to reduce pollution elsewhere to ensure the inland port genuinely improves Utahns' lives.