Guest opinion: The January rail bridge fire burned more than wood

The recent rail bridge burning on the westside has become more than a literal smoldering environmental disaster. Indeed, this episode is a metaphorical burning of bridges with the Salt Lake City citizenry.

On Thursday, January 7, a 120 foot wooden rail bridge located in the Poplar Grove area, crossing the Jordan River burned. Salt Lake City Fire Department responded with quick expertise to a dangerously complex situation. They are owed thanks and praise. Unfortunately, that is the only bright spot in the city’s response to this crisis.

As our community awoke on January 8, our air stunk with creosote – a carcinogenic covering burning off the smoking bridge. The community Facebook page was saturated with questions about smell, headaches, and breathing issues. With no official word from the city, community members sought information independently. But, the communities that surround the bridge received no official word as to the status of the bridge or potential health risks.

While conceding that the city has had more than an average workload in the past year, there still exist other truths – namely that we cannot pick and choose which crises we respond to with vigor and which we do not. In their failure to activate comprehensively, the city burned a bridge with its citizens by damaging our trust.

In a statement published in the Tribune on January 9, Mayor Mendenhall stated that “all communities are important…” She stated the Fire Department was the agency in charge of the actual fire mitigation as well as communication around it. The Salt Lake City Fire Department Twitter feed was the source for disseminating information.

The problem is that flames were not the city’s only responsibility.

This episode is a culmination for so many problematic city policies. First, there are numerous unsheltered people in encampments near the bridge. This city’s laissez faire approach to assisting unsheltered people is bound to lead to issues such as this. Secondly, there are the environmental concerns. The westside deals with horrible air from refineries. We are preparing for the inland port to exacerbate that. When an additional toxin is entering our air, an email from the Mayor’s office to community councils seems in order. Thirdly, there is the issue of the rails. They own our westside – we all worry if we should need an emergency vehicle while our main thoroughfares are blocked regularly. Fourthly, what happened to emergency management? Is this really the protocol we can expect in case one of the refineries releases an even more toxic chemical in even greater quantities? Is “check the Fire Department twitter feed” the best policy we can come up with?

The Fire Department did their job laudably. The rest of the city apparatus, however, did not pass this stress test. There was no substantive communication. In fact, the only communication we have received beyond the statement printed in the paper is from the Salt Lake Valley Health Department, telling us the creosote is essentially steam and the headaches we all had and residue on our vehicles were not related to it.

In her January 26 State of the City address, the mayor indicated that east-west equity and environmental protections were paramount. This incident demonstrates differently. Our city owes us better. Environmental disasters do not recognize city council districts – the next one could affect more of us. Everyone should be shocked at the abysmal failure of the city to handle an emergency and to assume the flames were the sum total of their responsibility. To burn a bridge with the west side is to burn a bridge with us all.

Victoria Petro-Eschler is a west side resident, mother, nonprofit professional, and candidate for the Salt Lake City Council District 1 seat.