What’s the Deal with the Inland Port?

Proposed inland port area

Over the past year or so, there has been a lot of talk about the development of an inland port in the northwest quadrant of the Salt Lake Valley, including a bill that passed during the 2019 legislative session (see our statement on this bill here). The Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah) has been following the development of the port and trying to sort through the claims on all sides to better understand exactly what is (and is not) known and already underway. Our goal is to recommend what we think needs to be done in order for the port to be a viable economic development project as well as a model of environmental stewardship, specifically as it relates to clean air, clean energy, and toxic waste.

So, what IS an inland port anyways?

An inland port will be an “intermodal transit hub,” an area that centralizes transportation for receiving and distributing goods.

  • In Salt Lake, this would look like a second railyard with potentially increased commercial truck traffic, both coming and going from the valley, as well as to and from the airport.
  • The area around the proposed inland port site in the northwest quadrant of Salt Lake already has a large number of corporate manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution facilities that move a large amount of raw materials and commercial goods in and out of the city.   
  • The port is meant to entice more such business to locate here and generate jobs, as well as attract out-of-state and international businesses to move their goods through the state.
  • While we already have some capacity for this type of transportation with the airport, freeway, and current railyard, the inland port would allow goods to clear customs here in Utah rather than at a port on the coasts, which could open up international markets directly to Utah businesses.

Now, what does this REALLY mean, especially in terms of the environmental impact the port could have? Well, it’s anyone’s guess at this point.

  • The Inland Port Board Authority, which started meeting in August 2018, is currently in the process of searching for a permanent executive director (an interim director, Chris Conobee, was appointed in December 2018) and the board is contracting with a firm to develop a business plan.
  • As written in the law, this business plan must include a sustainability plan that looks at the costs and benefits of implementing sustainable environmental measures upfront.
  • HEAL focuses on clean air, energy and climate, and radioactive waste, and those our primary areas of concern related to the environmental impacts of the inland port.
    • Port operations, including the increased traffic throughout the valley, will have large, negative impacts on air quality. This concern also applies to any manufacturing that develops around the port.
    • Another issue is the energy demands of these manufacturing and transportation facilities and their potential contribution to increased carbon emissions.
    • A third concern is the possible toxic waste generated if raw materials spill and leak into the soil and water table.
  • Other environmental concerns include water use, reclamation, and stormwater cleanup, impacts on the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, including bird nesting and stopover habitat, and pollution from new lighting sources that could affect bird migration patterns.
    • There are other local environmental groups with expertise in these areas who are evaluating these impacts and should be included in the inland port discussions.

HEAL Utah’s Recommendations

Despite the dearth of information on Utah’s specific inland port development and operational plans, there are technologies and best practices that should be implemented if the port is to be both environmentally and economically viable. These solutions have been well-researched and tested in ports throughout the U.S. and Europe. And to ensure economic viability, these should be included in the sustainability plan upfront because retrofitting buildings or equipment is much more expensive than doing it right the first time.

HEAL Utah has spent the last few months looking into what these solutions could be, mostly based on the principles of smart growth. “Smart growth” is an approach to development that integrates environmental and economic goals of a region, and prioritizes measures to reduce impact and promote community engagement.

Many organizations are weighing in on the port’s jurisdiction, taxing, neighborhood, land, habitat, and water issues. Check out the list below for HEAL’s recommendations on the two areas that we focus most on, air quality and energy, and for our thoughts on other important aspects of the port:

  • Conduct a baseline emissions and environmental impact assessment, and establish emissions limits for port operations with publicly-available monitoring and reporting
  • Require or incentivize Tier 4+ engines (the cleanest available) for heavy-duty trucks and equipment that enter or operate within the port (such as commercial trucks, rail yard locomotives, cranes, backhoes, etc.)
  • Supply electricity hookups for commercial trucks to reduce the need to idle, and establish idling limits for situations where idling is necessary
  • Electrify all operations possible to reduce the need for diesel or natural gas-fired appliances and equipment
  • Ensure the port is accessible to workers via multiple modes of alternative transportation – e.g. public transit, biking, and walking
  • Provide a clean hybrid or electric vehicle fleet for employee use

  • Construct all buildings up to the highest building code energy efficiency standards available, beyond the standards the state has adopted, to ensure low building energy use and emissions.

    • Install LED lights and photosensitive switches
    • Achieve LEED certification on all buildings possible
    • Install high-efficiency and low-emissions boilers, water heaters, furnaces, and other equipment
  • Install renewable energy onsite to offset some of the energy requirements
  • Employ renewable power purchasing programs to reduce reliance on fossil fuel generation
  • Collaborate with utilities to both benchmark and reduce long-term port energy use

Establishing a governance structure that allows for the implementation and oversight of best practices is critical to ensure that the port is constructed with the environment in mind and remains that way over time. The Inland Port Authority Board should consider:

  • Periodic environmental monitoring and audits, with performance indicators, targets, transparency, and accountability built into the reporting process
  • Establishing an Environmental Planning and Advisory Committee that provides recommendations and input on sustainability measures and performance
  • Establishing a Community Advisory Committee that allows for local input and engagement in port operations
  • Providing funding for state regulatory staff to conduct necessary inspections, oversee monitoring and reporting, and manage committee logistics

Many comments have been made in the news media and public hearings that the underlying intent of the inland port is to boost the coal industry and open coal from Utah and other states to international markets. However, we have not been able to confirm that this is true. Rest assured, we are very concerned that this could be a serious consequence, but at this point in time we are not aware of any specific plans to ship coal through the port.

While some believe that Utah does not need this inland port, there are others who want to see continued growth in the valley and think this is a necessary step that is good for the economy of the state. From HEAL’s perspective, we think that if the port is going to be built, it should be done in a way that doesn’t make our air, energy, and waste issues worse. We will do all that we can to ensure this perspective is an ongoing part of the inland port development process.

You can follow what’s happening with the port on this blog post, where we will post information about the Port Authority Board, developments, and more. Plus, follow us on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) for real-time updates.

Utah Inland Port Authority Board website
Map of the proposed area