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Controversy fires up over Utah push for coal terminal

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue | Posted - Mar. 5, 2016 at 4:50 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — A clearly frustrated Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, lashed out at critics in a legislative hearing earlier this week, defending a proposed $53 million investment in an Oakland, California, export terminal for Utah goods, including coal.

Hinkins, from Utah's coal country, said Salt Lake-based environmental groups ought to worry about cleaning up their own neighborhoods before jumping on Emery County for its coal-fired power plants.

"Everybody complains about the air quality out there. Our air is 10 times cleaner than your air. You guys got dirty air and you are expanding your airport up here," he said. "Why don't you take care of yourselves up here a little bit instead of worrying about us down there?"

Emotions are running hot over SB246, unveiled this week by Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, that proposes to invest $53 million in mineral lease revenue to buy Utah access in a planned export terminal or thru-port in Oakland.

The investment was initially proposed as a loan from the Permanent Community Impact Fund more than a year ago — and it would still be handled as a loan — but Adams is now running the legislation to answer any legal issues that may have surfaced from the Utah Attorney General's Office.

Critics say it is a bad use of "taxpayer" dollars and an unwise choice given the nature of the chief export — coal.

Tim Wagner, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, blasted the bill in the same hearing before the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee, describing its last-minute introduction as the most egregious act he'd seen lawmakers take.

He said it was particularly an affront given the Legislature's unwillingness to fund $2.5 million for new air quality monitors requested by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

"That to me is sad," Wagner said.

But Adams said his bill has nothing to do with air quality or environmental concerns, but access to export markets.

"I am dumbfounded how this gets to be an environmental issue," he said, pointing out that Utah has a host of products that include potash and salt that would be destined for the California port.

He added that critics would have to be "narrow-sighted with blinders on if you can't see the value of what we are doing here."

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said he supports the effort and West Coast states ought to refrain from interfering.

"It's not just a Utah issue. Wyoming and others want to ship — a legal product by the way that is something that is certainly in demand in the marketplace — and yet we have somebody arbitrarily saying we are not going to let it be shipped out of our ports," he said.


Earlier this week, California Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, wrote Adams, informing him she was going to run four bills to thwart the possible arrival of 9 million tons of Utah coal in Oakland.

"These four bills would better regulate coal shipments and put California on a path to better control of dirty fossil fuels," she said.

Herbert said the issue is really one of commerce.

"We ought to have the cooperation of California to help us export, rather than block our ability to sell a legal product," he said.

Carbon County Commissioner Jae Potter, in testimony before the legislative committee, bristled at what he called a "social injustice" perpetuated by California when it announced it would no longer accept coal-fired electricity from Utah, dumping the industry on its head.

"But to say it has come to an end is wrong," he said. "This helps us as a community shore up our future."

Wagner said it is wrong to expect Utah "taxpayers" to tap into their wallets to fund a risky enterprise for a fossil fuel industry in upheaval.

"The American coal industry is in deep, deep trouble," Wagner said.

Hinkins and Potter both stressed that the revenue behind Adams' bill comes from the royalties paid by industry on coal, gas and oil.

"This is not about spending tax dollars, this about taking dollars that could be used for mitigation in communities and giving the coal industry in particular the ability to grow, modify and adapt," Potter said.

Adams' bill remains in the Senate awaiting action.

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