Frustrated at no progress to stop Utah Inland Port, activists turn focus on Rio Tinto

Steve Griffin, KSL, File

Frustrated at no progress to stop Utah Inland Port, activists turn focus on Rio Tinto

By Katie McKellar, Deseret News | Posted - Aug. 26, 2020 at 8:51 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — Environmental activists opposed to the Utah Inland Port have focused their crosshairs on a new target.

Frustrated that the Utah Inland Port Authority Board — the Utah Legislature-created entity to guide development of a global trade hub in a 16,000-acre jurisdiction west of Salt Lake City International Airport — continues to steam ahead, the group Stop the Polluting Port on Wednesday held an online news conference to call on a major landowner in the port jurisdiction to “do the right thing.”

The group urged Rio Tinto, a global mining corporation, to protect rather than develop its land. They also blasted Rio Tinto for what they called a yearslong record of air pollution and environmental destruction in Utah.

“Nothing can undo the damage Rio Tinto Kennecott has done to our air and water,” said David Scheer, an urban planner and member of the Stop the Polluting Port Coalition. “But at least it can avoid causing even more harm in the future.”

Of the landowners in the port authority’s jurisdiction, Rio Tinto owns the most developable land, with about 1,600 acres of inland port area in the western and southwestern quadrants of the jurisdiction, according to the Utah Inland Port Authority’s five year strategic business plan.

A spokesman for Rio Tinto Kennecott in a statement Wednesday said state leaders have “established a clear vision through legislation for this land as part of the inland port site, aimed at delivering sustainable economic benefits. State leaders have established the Utah Inland Port Authority to gain public input throughout the project.

“While we are not acting as a developer in this project, Kennecott will continue to actively engage with the Utah Inland Port Authority, potential purchasers of our property and community members to encourage sustainable development, environmental protections and positive conservation outcomes,” the statement added.

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Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and a lead organizer with Stop the Polluting Port Coalition, said Wednesday their new attention on Rio Tinto was essentially a new strategy to fight the port authority as talks with board members and officials have not been productive to their goal of halting the project.

“Yes, this is a different approach,” Seed said. “We’ve found speaking to the Utah Inland Port Authority Board is like banging our head against a wall.”

The Utah Port Authority does not own any land in the port authority’s jurisdiction. Though the port board is charged with guiding and coordinating the creation of a global trade hub made up of truck, train and air connections, landowners in the area play a big role in when and how their land is developed — or not.

“(We) really want to engage Rio Tinto since they are property owners and the decisions they make will impact whether we have a polluted valley and destroyed bird habitat or not,” Seed said. “Rio Tinto can do the right thing here and protect this land.”

An open letter signed by over two dozen environmental, health, and west-side Salt Lake City groups and addressed to Rio Tinto and Utah Kennecott Copper Corp. CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques requests that Rio Tinto place its land holdings in western Salt Lake City into a permanent conservation easement to protect wetland and bird habitat rather than include it as part of inland port development.

“Rio Tinto Kennecott has profited from Utah’s land for over a century,” the letter states. “Now we ask you to preserve the land and to take a stand against more air and water pollution, and habitat destruction. That would be the greatest legacy you could give to future generations of Utahns — and birds of the world.

“From the thousands of pounds of lead emitted from Rio Tinto Kennecott’s smelter stack every year to the tons of fugitive dust, heavy metals, particulate matter, toxic chemicals, and nitrogen oxides emitted from your diesel equipment and other mining operations, Rio Tinto Kennecott has harmed the health of our densely populated community in many ways,” the letter states, referring to research conducted by Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment that estimates “over the course of 100 plus years, Rio Tinto Kennecott’s pollution of the Salt Lake Valley has led to the premature deaths of tens of thousands of people.”

The letter also noted Rio Tinto “once planned to leave this land between I-80 and the Great Salt Lake in it’s natural state as partial mitigation of environmental damage. Why is that now not the case?”

Stop the Polluting Port members also expressed concerns that the port authority land could contain ancient villages and burial sites of Indigenous people, particularly from the Shoshone, Ute and Goshute tribes. Archeologist Ron Rood said because of the port authority project area’s size and scope, there is a high likelihood there are yet-to-be-discovered archeological sites — and potentially sacred ancestral burial grounds — of Native American people that could be destroyed by the port’s development.

Rood noted archeological sites including large villages “are known to exist in this area, and no doubt there are additional sites yet discovered.” He pointed to the 1,000-year-old Fremont Village site discovered beneath the streets of Salt Lake City during the construction of the TRAX line, and another near the airport, as “evidence of an extensive occupation at around 1,000 years ago.”

“Ancient burial locations could be anywhere — literally anywhere — within the footprint of this massive undertaking,” Rood said. “No doubt, a project of this size and scope has the likely potential to destroy archaeological sites perhaps as easily with a single scrape of a dozer.”

Rio Tinto and NWQ LLC, which represents landowners in Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant, entered into a development agreement with Salt Lake City in 2018 for light-industrial and commercial warehouse development — an early step toward developing what would later become pitched and envisioned as the Utah Inland Port. Salt Lake City is still locked in that development agreement, which paves the way for 40 years of development under Salt Lake City’s current land use laws.

When the Utah Legislature created the Utah Inland Port Authority Board, the legislation’s first iteration allowed the board to have what Salt Lake City leaders considered ultimate land use authority through its power to hear and decide appeals to city land use decisions. In the latest update to that legislation, the Legislature restored Salt Lake City’s land use authority, so that entity is now in charge of land use decisions in port jurisdiction that fall within city lines.

Seed said Salt Lake City leaders were also copied on the open letter.

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Katie McKellar

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