Environmental advocates warn they’ll be ‘watching closely’ as Utah Inland Port begins business

SALT LAKE CITY — After a false start last month, the Utah Inland Port Authority board had its first meeting Monday, where board members were sworn in and the board’s leadership was elected.

The port authority members voted unanimously to appoint Derek Miller, Salt Lake Chamber president, as the board’s chairman, and Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers as vice chairman.

While the new board members spent the majority of their first formal meeting sorting through scheduling and other logistics, the board’s freshly selected chairman, Miller, unexpectedly opened up the time for public comment near the end of the meeting.

After growing accustomed to a process that had little to no public input, several representatives from air quality and environmental groups each thanked the board for the time and shared their own ideas on how the port authority could be mindful of air quality and environmental impact.

But comments shifted from cordial to snippy after Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, House Speaker Greg Hughes’ appointee, asked the advocacy groups to consider designating a single representative to speak for them in a “unified voice” at future meetings.

“Who is going to be that voice?” Gibson said, suggesting that a single representative would be able to more easily convey information to the board, rather than “20 different organizations.”

Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City Councilwoman and a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity who has helped spearhead pushback on the inland port, had a fiery response to Gibson.

“My response to you, sir, is that there will be lots of voices because this is as you yourself has acknowledged, ‘a very big deal,'” Seed said, referencing state leaders’ past comments that the inland port is expected to be the largest economic development project in Utah’s history.

“The biggest question for all of us is, ‘How are we going to breathe healthy air in the future?” Seed said, noting that the Salt Lake Valley’s air was particularly smoggy Monday thanks to wildfires.

She questioned how many more trucks the inland port would attract, or what kind of an impact a massive freight rail yard would have.

“We have serious problems we have to deal with, and there won’t be a unified voice,” Seed continued. “What you can do is choose, because there are lots of different views on this topic. And there will continue to be.”

“When you can assure us that this project is not going to further impair the air quality of northern Utah, then we’ll be good. That will be good to hear. But right now, none of those concerns have been addressed.”

“We’re going to be coming to every meeting and watching this process very closely,” Seed continued, “because our children’s lives depend on it.”

Seed’s comments concluded Monday’s meeting, which was introduced by Gov. Gary Herbert before he passed the gavel off to Miller, urging the board to take seriously public input and to address what he called “misinformation” that’s been “swirling around” about the inland port. He added that “the idea of openness and transparency” will be “vitally important.”

“This is not going to be necessarily an easy assignment,” Herbert said before he left the board to its business. “I think it’s going to take some wisdom and the ability to work together.”

The governor added “compromise is not going to be a dirty word” as the board moves forward.

The board’s first meeting — which officially started after its members were sworn in by Utah Supreme Court Justice John Pearce — came after last month’s meeting failed to convene when House Speaker Greg Hughes raised concerns with the board’s conflict of interest rules.

Hughes — who appointed himself to the board — has since resigned, after reports that he owned properties that disqualified him from being able to serve as a member on the board. Herbert also called a special session earlier this month to make changes to the law creating the board, negotiated by Salt Lake City Council members but protested by Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski.

When the port authority board was first created by the Utah Legislature during the 2018 general session, Salt Lake City leaders protested the port authority as an entity that had the power to usurp ultimate city land use decisions and tax authority. While HB2001, the bill passed in this month’s special session that included concessions that City Council leaders lauded, Biskupski stands firm against the law, with persisting concerns about land use authority and tax increment.

Rogers, who represents west-side communities included in the port authority’s jurisdiction, brought a copy of a letter that representatives from 24 community and environmental groups had tried to deliver to the board during it’s failed June meeting but were turned down because the board never convened.

The letter — signed by representatives from west-side community councils, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Great Salt Lake Audubon, Alliance for a Better Utah and other groups — called on the board to commit to transparency and protect the northwest quadrant’s environment.

Read the rest of the article from the Deseret News here.

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