No new protections in place for school children near Utah's inland port

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No new protections in place for school children near Utah's inland port (Photo: KUTV File)

Trucks and earthmovers buzz around a pair of massive warehouses currently under construction. They appear to be almost complete — in fact, landscaping around the gargantuan structures has already begun.

This is nothing new just west of the Amazon Fulfillment Center. The new prison and a new airport are quickly growing out of the mud and cheatgrass in the northwest part of Salt Lake City. However, this construction is notable because it appears to be one of the first construction projects to begin inside the boundaries of the controversial Utah Inland Port.

What is also notable is that, despite a handful of laws passed regarding the environment, nothing has been codified in a statute that ensures that 270,000 people, who live near or very near the inland port are protected.

“Developers are building warehouses that have no special environmental provisions, (these warehouses) are just as harmful as any warehouse built anywhere,” said Deeda Seed with the Center For Biological Diversity.

This is concerning for the parents of as many as 6,000 kids who attend eight different schools, all within a half-mile of the boundaries of the inland port. Now, as construction has unleashed, the people who live nearby will see how their health will be affected by what Seed says could add 69,000 new diesel trucks, and 155,000 new car trips a day to the roadways and highways around the port.

Jeremy Renosco is a teacher at Meadowlark Elementary. He points out that the kids he teaches, who are mostly racial minorities, are already victims of poor air quality. The playground of the school butts up to Interstate 215. That proximity to a massive emitter of polluted air makes a difference on the kids.

“The kids are more sluggish; they’re affected by it. I feel like they become more moody by being outside,” Renosco said.

The location of the inland port, in an area with mostly minority families, is not lost on teacher Karli LaMar. She lives in Rose Park, within miles of the port boundaries. She used to teach at Northwest Middle School and says her students are the ones who shoulder the burden of economic growth because their families lack the political and economic clout to fight back projects like the port.

“That is often something that is not taken into account as a cost of projects like this — the human cost,” LaMar said.

Professor Ed Avol with the Keck School Of Medicine at the University of Southern California says we can definitely expect the children who attend school near the inland port to be affected by the air quality.

He has engaged in a 30-year study of children who have attended class near busy roads and a California inland port. He says many of the study subjects are now in their 40s and have suffered medical issues, he says, because of poor air quality in their neighborhoods.

“Those children, who live by either the port or the roadway that come to and from that port, could be expected to have poor lung function growth,” Avol said.

He adds that, if a person loses lung function, it never returns.

“That appears to be something you don’t regain, so if you don’t catch up, if you don’t grow acuity through your adolescent years, through your teens, it’s something you have lost for your entire life,” Avol said.

Steps to make sure the air around the port is safe have been slow. Sen. Luz Escamilla has pushed for more regulations, but those ideas have been rebuffed by fellow lawmakers at the state Capitol. She has managed to pass two bills: One that will require the state to monitor air and water quality in and around the port boundaries, and another that will set up a state fund to help mitigate issues created by the construction of the port.

Jack Hedge is the executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority. He says the port is building agreements with entities like Dominion Energy. The goal is to improve air quality and energy efficiency for the vehicles that will travel in and out of the port.

Hedge says the port will also work to re-route vehicle traffic out of the residential neighborhood. He also wants to use tax incentives to encourage companies that use the port to implement more efficient vehicles as well as alternative forms of energy.

“Our strategic plan specifically calls for those types of programs and initiatives to be done," Hedge said. "We’re working on those plans. What we had to do first is set the agenda, set the target, the strategic direction of our board.”

But Seed, with the Center for Biological Diversity, said many of those initiatives aren't backed by state law and could take years to implement — years the students who will live and learn near the port don't have.

“This is all window-dressing," Seed said. "They’re agreeing with us, but they are not providing real remedies."


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