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Utah Democrat to file bill to track environmental impact of Utah inland port

FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2018, photo, shows Democratic Sen. Luz Escamilla speaking during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City.
FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2018, photo, shows Democratic Sen. Luz Escamilla speaking during a news conference at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — At every Utah Inland Port Authority Board meeting, environmental advocates raise concerns about the impact a global trade hub — what's expected to be the largest economic development project in state history — could have on west Salt Lake City's air, water and wetlands.

And yet there's no data yet to start tracking that impact, even though the controversial new government entity tasked with guiding that development started meeting five months ago.

That's why Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, plans to file a bill to create a data "baseline" so Utah can start tracking environmental impact in the Utah Inland Port Authority's jurisdiction, about 16,000 acres in Salt Lake City's northwest quadrant.

"Right now it's kind of like, 'Oh, we can assume there's going to be pollution because we're going to be increasing population and buildings and traffic,'" Escamilla told the Deseret News on Wednesday. "But it's just assumptions, so this baseline will create evidence-based, data-driven information so we can create policies based on evidence."

The Utah Inland Port Authority's jurisdiction includes thousands of acres of Salt Lake City's last swath of undeveloped land, including sensitive wetland areas. It also includes the site of the new Utah State Prison, now under construction.

Escamilla said she previously attempted to create a data baseline on the new state prison's construction area, but those attempts weren't successful. Now, she said Utah needs to set a baseline for the entire area so future development can be mindful of environmental impact.

She said the bill would require the state to keep " a very comprehensive data collection" for the area's air quality, water quality, lighting and sound and "have serious monitoring of that."

Escamilla originally said she planned to file the bill Thursday, but in the morning she told the Deseret News she was still making additional changes so it may not be ready until Friday.

"This is my No. 1 priority bill," Escamilla said.

She said a data baseline will act as a starting point to help monitor environmental concerns as the Utah Inland Port Authority Board moves forward — and help address concerns consistently raised by environmental advocates, inland port critics and west-side Salt Lake City residents.

"I live there," she said. "I'm breathing that air with all the pollution. I'm the one that's going to be dealing with the traffic. I mean, this is real for that community. But it's also real for whoever's going to work there."

"The point," Escamilla added, "is how do we know the impact of that development. We have no idea when we're not even collecting (data) before that."

The Utah Inland Port Authority was born out of controversy when the Utah Legislature passed what Salt Lake City leaders called a "land grab," giving the port authority the power to ultimately usurp city land use authority.

Escamilla said her bill would only create a data baseline for the area, and not attempt to address other concerns raised by Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski. During a special session, the Legislature passed a compromise bill drafted with the Salt Lake City Council to address some concerns, but Biskupski still balked, saying the compromise legislation still gave ultimate land use decision-making power to the inland port authority.

Biskupski in a prepared statement issued support of the bill.

"Sen. Escamilla's bill is critical as it brings accountability and transparency to the inland port project, as far as the environment is concerned," the mayor said. "Considering the area is already in a nonattainment area, the goal should be to use this information to help drive clean development through electrification and efficiency technology, which is already a reality."

Salt Lake City Council Chairman Charlie Luke said Wednesday he hadn't yet seen Escamilla's bill, but said "it's certainly something the council's willing to look at."

"I haven't seen the bill but the concept, in general, is something Salt Lake City can support," Luke said. "We just want to see the specifics before we commit to anything"

"The more data we can see on every function of the city, the better decisions we're going to be able to make, and I think the same thing goes for the state," Luke added.

Derek Miller, chairman of the Utah Inland Port Authority and president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, said he also didn't raise any concerns with its concept. Rather, Miller said he believes it's important to have baseline data.

"Environmental impact is of supreme importance to the inland port authority," Miller said, noting the port authority has already commissioned an environmental impact study. "In addition to that, I think it's really important that we not just get the scientific study, but also get input from the public to both understand their concerns as well as to seek input on how concerns can be mitigated and addressed."

Miller said it's "not good enough" to know what impact the inland port may have. Instead, leaders need to know what the area might look like without an inland port, as well as what kind of impacts the area may see if the Utah Inland Port Authority didn't guide development.

"It would be a false assumption to think it's the inland port or nothing," Miller said, noting the land in the area is privately owned. "Something will be built in this area, and the question is what is the best way to address environmental concerns."

Deeda Seed, a former Salt Lake City councilwoman and a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity — one of the loudest inland port critics — said she's supportive of the concept of Escamilla's bill.

"It’s important for us to understand the air quality conditions in the area designated for Inland Port now, so we’re able to model and measure the impact of emissions from the increased diesel truck traffic and other sources of freight-related pollution that could come with a port," Seed said.