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Environmentalists say inland port site threatens Great Salt Lake

Posted at 3:31 PM, Aug 17, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — Dozens of people protested at the Utah State Capitol on Thursday, calling on state leaders to abandon plans for an inland port project near a sensitive part of the Great Salt Lake.

The Utah Inland Port Authority is proposing a hub near the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge near Brigham City. The agency is set to vote on the proposal on Monday.

"At a time when the Great Salt Lake is in crisis — drying and dying — a state agency that frankly should not exist is making the situation worse," said Deeda Seed with the Center for Biological Diversity and a critic of the inland port project.

She was joined by other community and environmental groups who oppose the inland port to argue that specific site threatens migratory birds who use the area as a refuge.

"Less than half a mile is far too close for the millions of birds that utilize this area and it puts them in grave danger," said Heather Dove, the president of Great Salt Lake Audubon.

But the Utah Inland Port Authority is pushing back on the harms that environmental groups fear would happen should the Brigham City site go forward.

"We want to be good stewards of all the land that we’re over and that we’re nearby. So without question, we feel like we can balance the environmental and the economic interests of these areas," said Ben Hart, the port authority's executive director.

In an interview with FOX 13 News on Thursday, he insisted it would not encroach upon the Great Salt Lake and they were mindful of creating buffers in their zoning.

"We're already developing in these areas and we’re doing it in a way that’s integrated with our natural environment. So to suggest we can’t do that here? Is nothing short of absurd," he said.

But community and environmental groups, who have opposed the inland port since its inception, are highly skeptical of that and other promises by state leaders that the project will be environmentally friendly. They argue the port will increase air pollution and point to warehouses rapidly being built in Salt Lake City's Northwest Quadrant.

"Warehouse developers right now are hellbent on paving over every last inch next to some of the most important, highest functioning wetlands on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake," Seed said.

To mitigate some of the impacts, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall is pushing to set aside land as a "buffer zone" between port development and the Great Salt Lake. Environmental groups have not ruled out litigation over the port project.

The issue highlights competing priorities for the state of Utah. Political leaders have made saving the Great Salt Lake a top priority, passing water conservation bills and allocating roughly $1 billion to help. The shrinking lake presents an ecological catastrophe with toxic dust storms, reduced snowpack and impacts to public health, wildlife and the economy.

At the same time, the inland port has been billed as the largest economic development project in state history. Designed to get goods in and out of the state quickly bypassing a traditional coastal port, it could mean billions in job creation and economic impact. The size of the port itself has shrunk as it pivots to satellite locations across Utah including Cedar City, Spanish Fork and now Brigham City.

Dr. Brian Moensch of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment said he believes those smaller sites mean more industrial zones with diesel truck and train pollution.

"Every time state leaders realize the inland port isn't working they try and reinvent the whole idea. They replace it with yet another scheme that doesn't make business sense, squanders the taxpayers' money, subsidizes corporate developers, will degrade our quality of life and increase the air pollution most of our residents consider to be our greatest problem," he countered.

Hart argued it was the opposite.

"The reality of the inland port failing is that we’re going to have more cars on the road, more congestion in the air, we’re going to have fewer job opportunities for our kids," Hart said. "We have to have the inland port be successful. If it fails, future generations fail. I feel like a lot of these groups who like to criticize, if they really understood that, they’d be strong supporters of it because we’re trying to reduce carbon emissions in the state, we're trying to stop building so many roads and better utilize our underutilized rail in the state."

Asked by FOX 13 News about the port's new site at his monthly news conference on PBS Utah, Governor Spencer Cox said he did not have concerns.

"This is going to be the most environmentally-friendly inland port anywhere in the country," he told reporters, adding: "I don’t have concerns about the location as long as we’re building it in the right way and I feel confident that is happening."

Pressed on how the state balances its desire for an inland port against saving the Great Salt Lake, Gov. Cox replied: "I don’t think those two have anything to do with each other, Ben. I don’t. They just don’t. We’re going to fill the Salt Lake and we’re building in places where the lake doesn’t go or the bird refuge. These are places where trains have been before and where trains will continue to go."

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.