SALT LAKE CITY — The controversial Utah Inland Port Authority Board held its first meeting in nearly eight months on Wednesday — and it was the first meeting the board has had in almost a year without being disrupted by protesters.
But that likely is only because the meeting was held virtually via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, the online board meeting, much of which was spent reviewing the port authority’s five-year strategic business plan released last week, attracted dozens of public listeners and commenters, many of which continue to lambaste the project as one that will only damage the Wasatch Front’s air and quality of life, even as supporters argue it will actually do the opposite.
In many ways, Wednesday’s meeting featured rehashing of the now years-old debate over whether Utah should develop an inland port in the 16,000-acre jurisdiction the Utah Legislature established west of the Salt Lake City International Airport — as well as “satellite” locations in rural Utah — for a global logistics hub meant to maximize import and export connections via truck, train and air connections.
Supporters, including the port authority’s executive director Jack Hedge and commissioners from rural Utah counties, argue the generational project could solidify Utah’s place in the global logistics system, create thousands of high-paying jobs, and help coordinate warehouse and distribution growth that’s already coming in a way that would ensure the Utah port has minimal impact on air quality, traffic and other environmental issues.
But critics say the idea that a port authority could be sustainable or green in any way is bogus — and one that will ultimately be driven by money rather than with prioritization of Utahns’ health and the sensitive wetlands that serve as bird habitat near the Great Salt Lake.
A vision laid out in the port authority’s strategic business plan includes lofty green goals to bring electric trucks and cargo equipment, commercial electric charging infrastructure, air quality monitoring, dust control, environmental preservation buffer zones, environmentally friendly building standards and other strategies to mitigate its impact.
Hedge has said Utah is positioned to build what could be the first green port — unlike anything that currently exists in the world — and distinguish itself to be not only the “crossroads of the West” but the “crossroads of the world.”
Because the five-year strategic plan — which was presented to board members in Wednesday’s meeting, with no objections voiced — acts as a “framework” for decision-making, according to Hedge, it includes no specifics of how those goals will be reached. The future of the port authority and its development is in the hands of the port board, which will ultimately decide what projects get approved and what their requirements or financial incentives will be.
Lee Stanhope, of Salt Lake City, urged the port authority board to reject the business plan.
“While it contains a lot of wonderful ideas of what a green or sustainable future can be, it consistently uses terms like ‘supports,’ ‘promotes,’ ‘advocates for’ and ‘coordinates with’ without actually requiring that any of these events occur,” he said.
Sarah Buck was skeptical the port authority would actually get approval to use its revenue for sustainable programs.
“Have you worked with our Legislature?” she said. “I don’t think you’re going to have a lot of money for green incentives.”
Other critics accused port authority officials of “green washing” the project, despite the fact it would be placed in a city among those that have the worst air quality in the country.
“This is the worst place for an inland port, and trying to green wash it will not change it,” said Liz Buirley.
But supporters including commissioners from rural areas like Carbon and Emery counties expressed support for the project moving forward, and eagerness to partner with the port authority to increase exports and jobs in their areas with “satellite” port locations.
“We’re willing for it to be extremely large to take pressure off the Salt Lake Valley,” said Emery County Commissioner Lynn Sitterud.
While Wednesday’s meeting was void of disruptions, critics took their grievances to Twitter, where they vented about the board plowing ahead with its business despite technical difficulties that some public attendees experienced while trying to access the meeting.
Port officials required each participant to be given permission to access the Zoom meeting, and they were required to register for the meeting before being sent a link to join. Some had difficulty accessing the link until port authority officials provided a password. For some, like Joel Ban, it took an hour and a half after the meeting started to get access.
Ban, frustrated by the meeting, questioned whether it broke open meetings laws by not having an anchor location — but one of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s executive orders enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic allows public bodies to hold electronic meetings without having an anchor location.
Tussy King, of Salt Lake, said she also had trouble accessing the Zoom link and was only able to gain access by phone, leaving her unable to see the presentation slides shown during the meeting.
Scoffing at a port official emphasizing the port authority has an “open door policy” for public engagement, King called the authority a “farce” in a tweet.
“Going ahead with Zoom meetings during the pandemic is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg,” she tweeted.
Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and a leader of the Stop the Polluting Port group, said she got a “barrage of messages” from people complaining they couldn’t get access to the meeting. She said she knew of at least 10 people who tried to listen to the meeting that weren’t able to.
“So I hope you do better next time,” she told port officials.
Seed, in an interview with Deseret News, called the online meeting “a very isolating experience” and “a truly terrible way to hold a public meeting.”
However, many participants were able to access the meeting without issue.
At one point, more than 130 people were logged on to attend, with 90 written comments submitted and 30 people who voiced their comments verbally, according to a tally by port officials.
“We were pleased to see the level of participation tonight that was on par with our physical board meetings,” Hedge said in a statement after the meeting concluded Wednesday evening. “Whether it’s a physical or virtual meeting, we will always strive for a streamlined experience and will continue to improve that process.”
The port board is scheduled to meet again June 22, where it is expected to take action on the strategic business plan.