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News » Cover Story

Done Deal

Utah's Inland Port is already here, so what comes next?

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Nothing has worked. Nothing has stopped the Utah Inland Port from going forward. The massive shipping, warehousing and manufacturing hub just keeps chugging along, pushed by its legislative enablers who are making plans, building buildings, and dismissing fears around the potential for devastating impacts on the water, air and health of Salt Lake County's living beings. All this despite lawsuits, protests and studies (or lack of them) aiming to dispel the seemingly official notion that the Inland Port is a gift from God.

Architect David Scheer relied on existing development to create this rendering of  a built-out warehouse park at  the Utah Inland Port
  • Architect David Scheer relied on existing development to create this rendering of a built-out warehouse park at the Utah Inland Port

A lot can go wrong. The "port" lies in the wetlands of the dangerously shrinking Great Salt Lake, which could evaporate further or fill beyond what our plans allow for—climate change is tricky that way. Will birds and wildlife suffer from a decimated habitat? Will truck and railcar traffic further pollute the air churning in the valley bowl?

And what's the end game for those new communities in the city's fragile Northwest Quadrant? What's the long-term impact of that futuristic 5G technology, which consumes large amounts of energy, spewing even more emissions into the already choking atmosphere?

You've heard it all before, and if you follow the Legislature, the governor and even the city council when they're honest about their role in all of this, you have a pretty good idea of how great they think the port is and will be. Negative publicity has come from, wait, are they Antifa, socialists or just wacky enviros? Nothing seems to sway the powers that be, because there will be lots of money, plenty of commerce, and maybe more housing near the state prison for people who want to live and play "close to their work."

But one thing is certain: There is no going back. That is unless liquefaction wipes the entire $40 million—and counting—development away during the next big earthquake. On these pages, City Weekly attempts to describe what has been built, what is currently being built, and what can still be done to make the most of what will be built in the future.

"Some development is already occurring, but we still have an opportunity to curtail the scope of that development and the harm from it," says Deeda Seed of the Center for Biological Diversity, and the driving force behind the group Stop the Polluting Port.

Seed said her efforts to fight the port are voluntary, driven by the risk of legitimate harm to herself and others.

"When [port executive director] Jack Hedge says the inland port is already happening, that's misleading," she said, "because what they intend to do has not been explained to the public beyond platitudes."

Picture This
If the plans for what the port actually is still seem a little fuzzy, it's because they don't really exist. The powers that be talk in lofty terms about a green-but-bustling, transit-friendly campus, but you need to use your imagination, a nice little drone, and an architectural rendering to picture the final product.

In the aerial photo of the Utah Inland Port at the top of this page, architect David Scheer added warehouses and parking areas to approximate what he expects the area north of Interstate 80 could become (by way of reminder, the designated port boundaries extend considerably south of I-80 as well, including portions of West Valley City and Magna). The number, shape and size of the warehouses shown adds up to the total square footage outlined in the Port Authority's strategic business plan that was published in May 2020—152 million square feet.

And while the final construction may not look exactly like this, what's been built and planned to date suggests the image is not too far off.

"The warehouses I added are copies of an aerial photo of the existing Amazon distribution center," Scheer said. "Since there is no plan for the layout of the port, I just placed the copies on a grid edge to edge. This isn't how it would actually be done—there would be roads between the buildings and perhaps some green space, although the Amazon facility has very little. The idea is to give people an idea of how much land the construction associated with the proposed port would cover."

Compare the aerial photo to the original concept art for the port, or simply look at the maps: This is one big footprint sitting to the west of the Salt Lake Airport and just down the road from the new state prison.

The inland port is, in essence, a massive distribution center—including trucks, rail lines, cranes and, of course, warehouses. In 2018, a desperate and embattled Salt Lake City attempted to describe the pros and cons of this behemoth. Here's what they came up with, according to public materials released at the time.


Benefits:
·Greater efficiency in the amount of goods that can be distributed
·A reduction in transportation costs, as rail freight is not limited by the maximum number of hours a truck driver can drive
·The importance of freight terminals has grown with the expansion of globalization and e-commerce

Drawbacks:
·Environmental impacts such as air quality, water quality, habitat degradation
·Demands on public utilities and municipal services(water, fire/emergency, electricity/energy)
·Demands on road infrastructure and transportation(traffic, road repairs, noise pollution)


Everyone can understand the "benefits" that have legislative leaders drooling with anticipation. In brief, it's money: construction money, savings on freight and of course, a lifeline—however brief—for Utah's flailing fossil fuels industry.

In August, a stunning report from a coalition of environmental advocacy groups—including the Southern Utah Wildernes Alliance (SUWA) and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE)—detailed the misuse of more than $109 million in public money to promote or expand fossil fuel extraction, potentially in violation of the federal Mineral Leasing Act.

The report, titled "Utah's Oil Slick – Funding Polluters instead of Rural Communities," detailed how public funding intended to mitigate the impacts of mineral extraction had been awarded to road projects, engineering studies and attorneys fees, likely bolstering fossil-fuel operations.

"As Utah and the western United States experience the devastating consequences of climate change ... it is even more critical that the [Community Impact Board] stop siphoning public funds away from much-needed projects to finance dangerous fossil fuel extraction that worsens the climate crisis," the report states.

The environmental coalition's report followed a state audit of the CIB grant process in May, in which auditors described inconsistencies and questioned the approved uses of public funding.

Neither the audit nor the coalition report saw much of a reaction from the public and the press. Speaking to Fox13 News, Jennifer Napier-Pearce, the governor's communications director said, "the Governor supports the [Community Impact Board] and efforts to provide infrastructure for rural areas."

Warehousing and loading docks taking shape in the city’s Northwest Quadrant
  • Warehousing and loading docks taking shape in the city’s Northwest Quadrant

New Arrivals
Besides a lot of dust and a lack of shade, a trip to the "port" shows how much has already been done. In the photos to the right—showing an area roughly at 5800 West and 700 North—you can see new warehouses taking shape with their multitude of truck bays.

Much of the construction is being done by the Salt Lake-based Colmena Group. Its website does indeed show aspirations for a bright and modern "community" within the port, albeit one without discernible greenspace—think Sugar House, where Colmena has also built a senior living complex.

According to the company website, "Colmena has developed, co-developed and invested in real estate projects that built a current portfolio value of more than $1.6 Billion (exceeding six million square feet and 12,000 apartment units)."

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Local environmental advocates don't like what they see.

"They are razing everything, destroying wildlife habitat, levelling it," says Seed. "There are more sustainable ways to build. When you clear out all vegetation, you create airborne dust."

But Colmena is just doing what it's been told to do by state authorities—develop and make room for the money.

Speaking of which ... Amazon.

Amazon’s distribution center was among the first businesses to begin operating within the inland port.
  • Amazon’s distribution center was among the first businesses to begin operating within the inland port.

Warning Signs
Amazon has already built fulfillment centers in the Port, and they are exactly what you'd expect—large and low, stark and anticipatory of truck traffic.

Meanwhile, construction accelerates throughout the area in an increasing dust-up—literally—of activity. Amid the drought, there is little water and less vegetation to contain it.

The Romney Group abandoned a development in the port area of Salt Lake, ostensibly because of environmental concerns, and is working on a Tooele satellite operation instead. Josh Romney did not return calls about this development, although Seed says he met with her and the rest of the Stop the Polluting Port board.

"He told us he's concerned about the environment," she said, "and had turned down intensive water users."

Of course, Tooele has many of the same water and air quality issues as Salt Lake, and is just as locked in by mountains.

If you really want to be alarmed, watch a video called "Diesel Death Zone" about the expansion of the Los Angeles-Long Beach Port complex and the persistent pollution it generates for its Ocean-adjacent area. The video cites studies that show if you live in an area of high pollution, you are 4% more likely to die from any cause, and 8% more likely to experience lung cancer. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbates the danger.

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Speaking of the L.A. Port authority, emergency physician Dr. John Miller had dire warnings.

"They're paying their lawyers and their spin people to use the public's money to oppress the public," he said, "to use the public's money to continue harming the public."

This has been the fear of many Utahns ever since the port was launched in 2018, at the time for the diminutive reach of 16,000 acres. Its footprint was significantly increased the next year.

A 2019 poll from Utah Policy and Y2Analytics showed that 60% of city voters were opposed to the port's development in some form.

Then-Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski sued the state, saying the 11-member Utah Inland Port Authority board was unconstitutional in that it took over the city's land use and taxing authority. Only in April this year did the Utah Supreme Court deliberate on the case, meaning months—at least—until a ruling is issued.

No matter the outcome of that case, the court's decision can not "stop" the port. What was once the Coalition for Port Reform changed its name in 2019 to something less vague: Stop the Polluting Port. However, that eponymous call to action is increasingly an impossible goal. The coalition is instead focusing on mitigating the obvious harms to public health.

The  Goggin Drain and Lee Creek provide water for the Great Salt Lake’s shoreline ecosystems
  • The Goggin Drain and Lee Creek provide water for the Great Salt Lake’s shoreline ecosystems

Down the Drain
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, sponsored a 2019 bill to establish baseline environmental conditions in the Northwest Quadrant, in order to better monitor the potential environmental impacts of the port's construction and operation. Those baseline measurements would include air quality, air emissions and water quality.

The anti-port coalition met recently with Utah's Division of Water Quality (DWQ), which is moving ahead on baseline monitoring. Seed, however, fears the requirements will become another unfunded mandate—a law that says something should happen, but provides no resources for its implementation—as DWQ has indicated it did not receive adequate funding to complete the job.

Escamilla had also asked for baseline monitoring of light and noise pollution, but apparently that was one environmental step too far. That language was removed from the bill that passed.

"The bottom line here—however you describe the development in this area—is that it can't add huge volumes of pollution and carbon emissions, drain the aquifer and further contribute to the death of the Great Salt Lake," says Seed. "Unfortunately, the development being contemplated by property owners would do all of those things, and because of the Legislature's takeover of the area, and Salt Lake City's fear and confusion with regard to who oversees what, the developers are getting away with whatever they want."

Let's take a moment to talk about the Goggin Drain, a very unsexy name for a very vital ecological resource. The Goggin Drain—pictured at the top right of this page—is located along the Jordan River surplus canal just west of the Salt Lake International Airport. Most of Salt Lake County's streamflows and mountain runoff end up in the Jordan River, and the Goggin Drain handles the overflow, when there is any.

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The Goggin Drain is an important water source for the adjacent wetlands. In 2006, Salt Lake-based SWCA Environmental Consultants released a prophetic report assessing the wetlands and wildlife in the area.

"Relatively low land costs compared to adjacent urbanized areas, easy access to Interstate 80 and the proposed Mountain View Corridor, and proximity to the Salt Lake City International Airport make the upland areas west of the airport attractive for economic growth in the area," it wrote, calling for a comprehensive wetlands planning process.

In a single day, more than 19,800 staging and migrating shorebirds have been detected along the Great Salt Lake shoreline between the old Saltair railway and the Goggin Drain, including all of Lee Creek, pictured above, a 305-acre management area that provides effectively the only public access point to the lake's headwater shoreline.

A 2018 City Weekly report—"For the Birds"—detailed the extent to which bird sanctuaries and habitats are being impacted by development. But humans, birds and other wildlife all need water, an increasingly scarce resource in Utah.

Some of the new warehouses are landscaped with Kentucky Blue Grass, hardly the most water-wise grass. But developers have made sure to include bike lanes for cyclists, in what is perhaps the least scenic area in the county.

A group of pronghorn—the fastest land mammal in the western hemisphere—stand quizzically near an electrical substaion.
  • A group of pronghorn—the fastest land mammal in the western hemisphere—stand quizzically near an electrical substaion.

Desperate Measures
Wildlife is increasingly at risk within the port boundaries. The National Wildlife Federation says that habitat loss is the primary threat to the survival of wild animals in the United States. Beyond development, pollution and water diversions, climate change itself threatens the survival of wildlife, if not human beings.

The Port Authority doesn't want any back-talk. In March, it removed two west side activists from a committee on air quality and the environment. The community has been kept in the dark about plans, although Hedge, the port's new executive director, maintains that the project can support economic growth and environmental sustainability.

Responding to environmental criticisms in June, Hedge told Fox13 that the inland port provides an opportunity to build better freight systems than what would otherwise exist.

"As our population continues to grow, we're going to consume more cargo," Hedge said. "The more efficiently we can bring that cargo into this market, the more benefits it can have on our air quality, our traffic, our quality of life, and our community in and around the port area."

Stop the Polluting Port doesn't buy it, but they're willing to be convinced. Environmental stability is only one of many issues, and they have asked the port authority board for a health impact assessment to make it clear that the project will do no harm.

"One of the problems we are running into with the health impact assessment is that we need baseline information about the number of employees expected at full development and really what 'full development' entails," Seed says. "[The port authority] is unable to provide that information, apparently because they don't know the answer."

Hedge came to Utah from the Port of Los Angeles, which is now going through a $14 billion mitigation effort to address the environmental disasters the port created. Jonny Vasic, executive director of UPHE, said Utah risks a similar money-drain down the line if the state proceeds with developing the port without attempting to first address its potential harms.

"It's the height of irresponsibility," Vasic said. "Be prepared for the exact same thing in Utah."

Unless, that is, something finally does work.