SALT LAKE CITY — As public opposition against the proposed Utah Inland Port continues to simmer, members of the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition — made up of mostly older Salt Lake City residents — came together Wednesday with a specific task, straying from the more chaotic past tactics of younger port protesters.

They gathered in the Capitol’s Hall of Governors, under the portraits of dozens of the state’s past leaders, holding signs reading “Stop the polluting port” and “Our children deserve clean air,” and peacefully held a news conference before hand-delivering letters to the offices of both House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

The letters asked for legislative support and funding of a health impact assessment of the proposed port before any more taxpayer money is appropriated to the controversial Utah Inland Port Authority. The state-created entity is to guide development of what has been pegged as Utah’s largest development endeavor — a project planned in northwest Salt Lake City to maximize Utah’s place in the global import and export economy with a network of truck, train and air connections.

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But critics only see ports, whether they’re on the coast and fed by ships or not, as dirty, environmental disasters that bring miles of trains, concrete jungles, millions of square feet of shipping yards and transloading stations, high truck traffic, facilitate fossil fuel extracts and burp pollutants into the air.

“Ensuring public health is the most basic responsibility of government,” said David Scheer, a coalition member and Salt Lake City urban planner and architect. “I can think of no reason why the port authority board or the state Legislature would object to assessing public health impact before proceeding any further with the port’s development.”

Ursula Jochman, a Salt Lake City resident, said as a senior who suffers from asthma, she’s concerned every time she visits the Avenues in Salt Lake City and she can see a “layer of brown” lingering over the city — a city that’s already among the worst in the nation for air quality on bad air days.

“We should be reversing it, not contributing to it,” Jochman said.

Robert Broadhead, a retired professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut and resident of Salt Lake City, said Utahns only need to look toward Arizona to see there are already inland ports in the West, and that Arizona already “beat” Utah to that game.

“Drive past the inland port in Phoenix. You will see the incredible blight that I do not want to personally see on the shore of the Great Salt Lake,” Broadhead said.

Though the Utah Inland Port Authority’s new executive director, Jack Hedge, lauds the possibility of Utah building what could be the greenest, most eco-friendly port in the U.S., coalition members expressed skepticism and distrust of the Legislature for creating the inland port authority in a rushed, altered bill passed quickly late at night in the waning hours of the 2018 session.

“Ensuring public health is the most basic responsibility of government.”

Since then, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski has sued state leaders, contesting the constitutionality of the 11-member Utah Inland Port Authority board, claiming it usurps city land use and taxing authority.

Promises of a green port aren’t “going to hold up,” Jochman said.

“Even if they say they’re going to do it, they always kind of change their minds when things don’t work out so well, and it’s going to be really hard to do that,” she said.

Protests have successfully shut down several inland port-related meetings over the summer. Those actions escalated to violence when protesters stormed the Salt Lake Chamber building downtown in July. The board hasn’t held another meeting since June, when board members voted to hire Hedge while trying to ignore protesters pounding on doors and shouting from the hall.

Since then, Hedge is working to get his feet beneath him in his new role, working on the port authority’s business plan and environmental impact study.

Working with an $8 million budget in state funding for this year, the port authority has not yet solidified a clear plan for the project, so there’s no telling yet what a Utah Inland Port will look like.

Hedge says he’s open to all public input and has told the Deseret News it’s “absolutely” possible to build a green port — one that perhaps could rival technologies currently being used in ports in Europe, including the Port of Rotterdam where there’s permeable pavements, solar power, wind energy, plug-ins for electric trucks, electric trains and more.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Hedge welcomed input from the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition, but did not directly address their request for a health assessment study.

“We appreciate those who are bringing ideas to the discussion and are committed to working with the community to mitigate the impact of development in this area,” Hedge said. “While the market will determine what is or isn’t built, the Utah Inland Port Authority will insert the public’s values into how it’s done.”

After Wednesday’s press conference, coalition members walked upstairs to hand-deliver their letter to legislative leaders. The letter requests “full support and funding for comprehensive health impact assessment of the proposed port.”

The letter details the assessment as a “data-driven process defined by the World Health Organization that has been used throughout the world to evaluate consequences” of projects and policies on public health.

“It is only common sense to ask questions about the potential health effects of emissions from thousands of additional trucks, trains and cars, the impact of these vehicles on traffic congestion and noise levels in neighborhoods, stormwater runoff into sensitive wetlands from thousands of acres of building and paving, and light pollution that may affect nearby homes and wildlife habitat that is also vital to our communities’ health,” the letter states.

Neither the House speaker nor Senate president were present to accept the letters Wednesday, when lawmakers were holding interim meetings on Capitol Hill. In the Senate offices, Utah Senate chief of staff Mark Thomas accepted the letter, thanking coalition members and saying he would pass it along to the Senate president. In the House office, chief clerk Megan Allen accepted the letter in person and agreed to pass it along to the House speaker.

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In a statement issued later Wednesday, Aundrea Peterson, spokeswoman for the Utah Senate, and Matt Lusty, spokesman for the Utah House, did not specifically address the call for a health study, but both referred to a bill the Legislature passed earlier this year. Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, sponsored the bill establishing baseline environmental conditions and monitoring of the potential environmental impacts of the port, including air quality, air emissions and water quality.

“Air quality is an important issue in our state,” Peterson said. “Collecting the data, which will be available online, will help us work together to implement evidence-based policies to mitigate possible adverse effects on our environment along the Wasatch Front.”

Lusty noted House Majority Leader Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, supported Escamilla’s bill as well as a measure passed within inland port legislation in collaboration with clean air groups to ensure larger vehicle classes meet clean air emissions standards set by the Environmental Protections Agency.

“The Legislature will continue to monitor the inland port development to ensure its clean air standards are met,” Lusty said.  

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