Guest opinion: Utah port can become the best of the west…if we take action now

The proposed inland port could spark innovation, bring economic diversity, and put Utah in a position to be the best of the west — if it is done correctly.

By “correctly,” we mean designing an inland port from the outset that includes clean, low-emission technologies that will reduce the large potential impacts on our airshed and energy grid. There is great opportunity here but it is still unclear how the Inland Port Board Authority will prioritize the assessment of these technologies and what  their implementation will  look like.

The recent amendments to the inland port bill (HB2001) did address some of the environmental concerns that were raised in the initial bill (SB234, passed during the 2018 regular legislative session). These amendments, which include developing an explicit sustainability plan within the overall business plan, as well as completing an environmental and emissions impact assessment for any development project brought to the board, made the inland port much more palatable. But it still has room to improve and the stakes are too high for the Board and the business community to ignore.

To ensure the inland port will maximize the potential for our economy, health, and environment, sustainable development must be integrated into every aspect of the port. Sustainable development will minimize environmental risk, prioritize public health and safety, and implement new technologies to make the port as clean as possible.

Currently, Salt Lake and Provo are out of attainment with federal health standards for both small particulate matter (PM2.5, mostly a problem in the winter) and ozone (primarily occurring in the summer). Utah’s projected population growth, tied to our strong and expanding economy, means that emissions will only continue to increase over time.

This will make attaining federal standards more difficult, which means that many of the manufacturing and logistics operations that will benefit from the port, as well as the residential development associated with these new jobs, could be at risk. Utah has been able to walk the fine line between development and air quality for many years, but we are on the edge of our economy expanding at a rate that our airshed can’t keep up with. That means business opportunities, and jobs, are on the line.

While we are hoping to attain federal air quality standards by 2019, the Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ) has had difficulty explicitly modeling what efforts it will take to get us there. Anticipated diesel emissions from increased freight and heavy-duty truck traffic associated with the port, as well as the construction of the port itself, will add new emissions that are not currently accounted for in DAQ’s modeling. This could hinder our progress towards attainment and towards economic growth.

However, we shouldn’t lose all hope for our environment and economy yet.

There are many solutions available that can be integrated into the project to protect our health and our air from increased pollution. For example, the Board could require all diesel engines that enter or operate in the port be Tier 4 or better; electrify all possible operations; conduct regular air quality impact assessments of emissions generated both onsite and throughout the nonattainment areas; monitor and control all emissions so that they don’t compromise our compliance with federal air quality standards; and determine the best available technologies to implement, based on a prudent review that includes a thorough cost-benefit analysis.

To ensure the Board has access to the expertise needed to best assess appropriate technologies, adding an ex-officio board member that can fairly and accurately represent environmental interests should be considered. In addition, with the new ability enabled by the recent amendments that allow creation of advisory councils, the Board should do their due diligence to create an environmental advisory council that will be able to help them navigate through the intricacies of these technologies and challenges.

Air quality is one of top concerns of Utah citizens. This has been reflected in recent stakeholder-driven visioning processes lead by Wasatch Front Regional Council and Envision Utah, which have resulted in plans to help guide development of the valley. These resources should be not be ignored but instead considered a baseline on which to build. There are other environmental concerns to consider as well, including issues of water quality, the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, local wildlife, and the impacts of light and noise pollution. All of these concerns are just as critical and in line with what citizens of the Wasatch Front desire.

The health of the environment and the economy are not at odds — they go hand-in-hand. Planning the inland port, including planning for environmental impacts, needs to be deliberate, intentional, and an ongoing part of the conversation. The inland port is a unique opportunity for Utah to become the best in the west and a leader in a clean energy economy, and we shouldn’t throw it away.

  • HEAL Utah, Breathe Utah, Utah Clean Cities