The Beat Goes On – And So Must We With Our Continuing Vigilance to Protect Great Salt Lake

Executive Director's Message – Spring 2018

“Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into. “

Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel (Laurel & Hardy)

On February 16, 2018 – just short of a year into the process – Promontory Point Resources LLC (PPR) withdrew its application for a Class V Permit, which was at that time under review by the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control. In its letter to Scott Anderson, the Division Director, PPR requested that his staff discontinue review of the application “until further notice.”  Although the train has stopped short of the station, it’s highly unlikely that it won’t eventually show up. I hope I’m wrong about this but my skepticism leads me to believe that it’s only a matter of time before this economic boondoggle rears its ugly head once again. I say this because the money that has already been thrown at it and the politics that support it will continue to fuel it.

That being said, a lot has happened with this convoluted saga both before and after PPR’s request to withdraw its application. My goal here is to help shed additional light on some of the deeper corners of this conversation and to help you maintain your sense of footing on the issue by including some things that are worth repeating for context. 

I wrote extensively about this in the Winter 2018 newsletter. Important points were reiterated in the joint Op-Ed that FRIENDS and Sierra Club published in the 1/26/18 Salt Lake Tribune – Another Class V Landfill is Not the Way to Generate Economic Development for Utah. And we talked about the process and asked questions with the Division at public information meetings hosted by FRIENDS and Sierra Club in January and February. Nothing has changed and the message remains the same today. 

There are many reasons why this proposal is a huge gamble for both Box Elder County and the people of Utah. As a potential economic asset worthy of investment, it’s rife with empty promises and predictable missteps in its practices. And it’s an extremely risky proposition. Perhaps the only thing about it that can be said with any certainty is that it is a clear and present danger to Great Salt Lake

Because it’s located next to this hemispherically significant ecosystem that’s critical to millions of migratory birds, a global brine shrimp fishery, and mineral extraction operations that rely on the purity of their products, it jeopardizes a known economic generator of $1.32B annually to the people of Utah. That figure includes $375M in total labor income, and 7,700 jobs that are created from the Lake’s ecosystem services. This project jeopardizes a valuable and irreplaceable resource by constructing a repository for toxic waste and contamination that all Utahns will have to live with for centuries to come. Which is why it’s imperative that we keep our eye on this disturbing foul ball. 

You will recall that under its existing Class I Permit that was acquired with the purchase of the 2,000 acres of property in 2016, PPR, which is the only privately owned landfill in the state, has already sunk at least $16.25M of taxpayers’ money into the incomplete construction of a landfill facility at the SW tip of Promontory Peninsula. 

The money was approved for construction of a Class I landfill in December 2016 by the Utah Private Activity Bond Authority (PAB) part of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. The bonding was issued by Box Elder County. It’s important to note that the PAB rejected PPR’s initial request for bonding authority for a Class V facility in its October 2016 meeting, which is curious because at that time PPR had not, in fact, submitted its application for a Class V Permit to the Division. As a result of the rejection, PPR modified and resubmitted its request to the PAB on December 6, 2016 for Class I bonding. The PAB approved the request in a 5-4 vote for an allocation of $16.25M to be issued through tax-exempt bonds. PPR is obligated to begin paying interest on those bonds in June 2018 – which is, like, tomorrow!

It’s no wonder that PPR wanted to test the waters with its request for funding a Class V Permit from the PAB because it already had the momentum to support that goal from the 2016 General Session of the Utah Legislature. On March 2016, a joint resolution (HJR 020) sponsored by Sen. Pete C. Knudson (Brigham City), and Rep. Lee B. Perry (Perry, UT) was approved to provide legislative endorsement for a Class V operation. “It would have a favorable economic impact on Box Elder County in the form of new permanent jobs and host fees.” A year later, in an article by Leia Larsen at the Standard Examiner, it appeared that Rep. Perry expressed some remorse about his impulsiveness to grease the skids on this idea. He said the measure was presented to him as an urgent matter, tied to an immediate economic opportunity. The article states that confusion about what type of waste would be accepted, where waste would come from and the depth of local support for – or opposition to – the project were essentially unheeded. Perry also said he wasn’t aware at the time that the company would pursue coal ash, incinerator ash, contaminated soil and industrial waste. It’s unfortunate for all of us that Rep. Perry chose not take more time to become better informed about this “opportunity” before jumping on the band wagon to endorse it. Alas!

On January 4, 2017, Brett Snelgrove, on behalf of Allos Environmental, the parent company of Promontory Point Resources, LLC, and a representative from TetraTech, the company overseeing the design of the landfill, made a presentation to the GSL Advisory Council about the Class I permitted facility. They talked about the design, economic viability, environmental controls, transportation of in-state waste to the site via the overland county road, and a modification of a permit that was on the verge of approval by the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control; a reference that remained unclear at that time. 

In addition to the $16.25M mentioned above, $20M in private equity capital had also been committed to the project. Among the project costs that must be considered before the facility can begin to operate i.e. receive waste, is a Division-approved bonding source to cover mitigation costs for clean up of any contamination incidents and/or if closure of the facility is left in the hands of the state. The Executive Director of the Department of Environmental Quality would be the designated trustee for this account. What’s concerning here is that the amount of money in the fund – only about $2M – would be woefully inadequate in the event that any of these scenarios occurred. And they may well occur: – existing science supports a compelling argument that impacts to Great Salt Lake are both probable and dangerous. 

PPR hoped to break ground on the Class I landfill by the end of February 2017 but it wasn’t until May when that happened. Since the presentation raised many questions from a packed room of attendees, the GSL Advisory Council (with one abstention from its Box Elder representative) unanimously agreed to send a letter to the Division expressing numerous concerns it had about the facility and its proximity to the Lake. 

Remember that among the many challenges with this business venture for PPR and its Class I Permit is that it can only take waste under contracts approved by the Division from local governments within the state. Currently, that market is already sewn up by 10 existing facilities within the state that have a collective life storage capacity of 363 years. And although PPR’s Class I Permit is up for renewal in 2021, that isn’t where the economic payback is going to come from for these private business partners. 

The real moneymaker seems to be in a Class V Permit on the assumption that it would give PPR some room to move in the marketplace. A Class V Permit would ramp up PPR as a commercial facility. It wouldn’t be limited in its scope of waste markets by having to secure Division-approved contracts. And it could take out of state waste like coal ash from California. It’s well established that coal ash is a hazardous waste. 

However, to facilitate this PPR says it would need a railroad spur on to the site from the UPRR causeway that crosses the Lake. This of course is a terrible idea and clearly untenable since it would entail the transport of potentially hazardous waste across the entire Lake, likely spreading contamination. Additionally, this prospect is overshadowed by the fact that there are already 10 Class V landfill facilities with a combined life storage capacity of more than 2,000 years in operation in Utah. You might think this would have raised question about PPR’s economic viability in the Utah marketplace. Nevertheless, in March 2017, PPR applied for a Class V Permit with the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control. 

When filing its application, PPR was required to include a Needs Assessment Report to justify the need for the facility. In July 2017, an independent third party review of the report identified numerous data gaps that had to be addressed before evaluation of the application could proceed.  A Needs Assessment Report Addendum was filed on December 20th. This time the third party review found that “it does not demonstrate the need for additional Class V landfill capacity in Utah, does not provide a robust market analysis, and has some remaining data gaps and therefore does not establish the need for the facility.” Back to the drawing board.

On January 9, 2018, a notice went out from the Division inviting public comment on a request from PPR for the installation and relocation of three down gradient monitoring wells. After review by PPR and its engineering and water consultants, it was noted that some of the wells proposed in the Class I Permit Modification (May 2016) were greater than 500 feet from the waste boundary. Down gradient monitoring wells are important for early detection of potential contamination pathways from the landfill into the surrounding water and landscape to avoid impacts. Why the initial location of the three down gradient monitoring wells were so off the mark to serve their objective is puzzling.

On February 14, 2018, the deadline for public comment, Western Resource Advocates submitted a letter to the Division on behalf of FRIENDS and Sierra Club expressing concerns about the subjectivity in the location of the monitoring wells and emphasized the need for better hydro-geologic data pertaining to the landfill and in order to protect groundwater from contamination. The letter included public comments that were submitted by the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, Compass Minerals, and the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College. All of the comments stressed concerns about the lack of groundwater data and the potential of groundwater flows from upland areas on Promontory Point to documented, proximal lakebed spring systems into this unique and significant ecosystem. Two days later, PPR withdrew its Class V Permit application “until further notice.”

So what does the square root of this information tell us? It tells us that

“Any miscalculation in design or engineering features that results in leaching, leaking, or catastrophic discharge of waste into Great Salt Lake will be highly consequential to the ecology and economic value of GSL. The history of coal ash disposal sites is replete with case studies of intentional, unintentional, and accidental discharge into surrounding terrestrial and aquatic systems causing acute and prolonged harm to aquatic organisms, populations, habitats and ecosystems.”*

Because the risks far outweigh the benefits for Utah’s economy and the long-term integrity of the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem, if PPR changes its mind and reapplies for the Class V Permit, it should be denied.

In saline,

Lynn 

* From the whitepaper Risks to Biota and the Ecosystem of Great Salt Lake from the PPR with Particular Emphasis on Potential Harm to the Brine Shrimp (Artemia franciscana) Population, February 2018, written by Brad Marden, Parliament Fisheries,LLC on behalf of the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative.

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Why We Care

  • We live along the shores of something GREAT - Great Salt Lake.

    And whether we preceive it or not

    During its relatively short life as a remnant of ancient Lake Bonneville

    It has affected all of us.

    From the ancients who lived in the Great Salt lake wetlands

    To the growing populations of today and tomorrow

    The Lake affect continues to modify, influence and impress our lives.

     

    Lynn de Freitas, FRIENDS Executive Director