December 20, 2017

Adjacent Land Use Matters for Great Salt Lake

Winter 2018 -Executive Director’s Message-

“UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

            - The Lorax

The lay of the land-

Less than 20 miles from Gunnison Island, a protected sanctuary for the third largest breeding population of American White Pelicans in North America. In the same neighborhood as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty that was designated Utah’s Official State Work of Land Art in March 2017. Slightly more than 10 miles from the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge - Utah’s first national wildlife refuge established in 1928. And as the gull flies, about 25 miles southeast from the Golden Spike National Historic Monument, a popular tourist attraction that celebrates the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. 

Where our story continues-

In the Spring 2003 newsletter, I wrote about an ill-conceived proposal that promised to generate economic livelihood for Box Elder County by constructing the nation’s 4th largest landfill on the western flank of the southern tip of the Promontory Peninsula. The Promontory Peninsula is a misunderstood but impressive landscape that’s emblematic of the classic Basin and Range geomorphology. The extension of its magnificent reach of mountains and scrubby productive upland habitats creates a visually notable portion of the distinctive northern shoreline of Great Salt Lake. Its uplands possesses a prodigious array of raptors including American Bald Eagles, Burrowing Owls-a species that is included on the Utah Sensitive Species List, Long-billed Curlews, mule deer, waterfowl that take refuge on its eastern shoreline in Bear River Bay, and a passel of other critters that call this place home. 

15 years ago, a Class I permit was being pursued by the applicant Promontory, LLC. Several other proposals for landfill sites in Box Elder County were also being considered but only this one rose to the top. The rationale for the landfill was based on projected expanding waste disposal needs of the rapidly growing population in northern Utah.  A Class I permit means that contracts to accept waste can only be made with local governments and municipalities within Utah of wastes generated within those boundaries, along with approval by the Executive Secretary/Executive Director of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).  The waste stream that can be accepted consists of municipal, commercial, industrial, construction/demolition waste and special wastes and small quantity generator hazardous waste such as low level infectious waste, heavy metals, solvents, a variety of organic compounds like PCB’s that are conditional under certain regulatory codes within the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control (the Division) in DEQ.

The Box Elder County Planning Commission held a series of public hearings on the Promontory, LLC landfill. Objections and concerns were expressed about the obvious externalities that come with this type of land use. Many people including adjacent property owners within 1000’ of the proposed site, local citizens, conservation interests including FRIENDS, the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, and a family owned Great Salt Lake mineral extraction operation in Gunnison Bay that produces mineral supplements for human consumption spoke to these issues.  Among those concerns were fugitive trash that inevitably finds its way across the landscape, the relationship between air, land, and water contamination from wastes that can impact wildlife and the ecology of Great Salt Lake, and the need for yet another facility given available waste markets. And in general why did Box Elder County choose to promote this type of land use as an economic generator? Following a public commenting period through the Division, a Class I permit was issued in March 2004. 

The writing on the wall-

In 2009, there was an ownership change. In 2011, the Class I permit was renewed. In 2014/15 another new ownership defaulted on its contract and so the permit reverted back to the prior owner. In 2016, Promontory Point Resources, LLC (the company) purchased the 2,000 acres and the Class I permit that came with it which is due to expire in 2021. Throughout this period of what could be construed as Utah’s very own version of a classic Marx Brothers movie, no ground on Promontory Peninsula was disturbed. The likely reason for this is because the market for in-state waste is already secured by 10 existing Utah landfill facilities that have a combined life storage capacity of 363 years. Included in this lot is the Box Elder County landfill that has its own Class I permit with existing capacity and room to expand if need be. 

Clearly, as a business venture and an economic generator for Box Elder County, this prospect seemed to be going nowhere until May 2017, when earthmovers began carving up the landscape. So what changed?

In March 2017, two things happened. On March 10th during the 2017 General Session of the Utah State Legislature, (H.J.R.020) Joint Resolution Approving Class V Landfill for Promontory Point Resources, LLC sponsored by Rep. Lee B. Perry (Perry, UT) and Sen. Peter C. Knudson (Brigham City) became effective. And on March 17th the company submitted its application to the Division for a Class V permit. A Class V permit would allow the company to receive the same types of wastes as a Class I but from out of state, and with the addition of “special wastes as enumerated in the operation plan as defined in Utah Administrative Code, R 315-315. Initial disposal rates would be approximately 200,000 tons per year and approximately 750 tons per day. Depending on the waste sources, the volumes would increase annually.

The resolution “gives approval for the construction and operation of a Class V commercial nonhazardous solid waste landfill” for the company because “[it] would have favorable economic impact on Box Elder County in the form of new permanent jobs and host fees”. Note the “nonhazardous” category that is certainly debatable. Although H.J.R. 020 grants provisional approval of a Class V permit by the legislature, it is still contingent upon approval of the operational plan by Box Elder County, the Director of the Division, and requires the governor’s signature.  What’s important to note here is that Utah already has 10 Class V permitted landfills with a collective waste storage capacity of more than 2,036-yrs. Once again this begs the question of whether taking more out of state waste is really the best way for Box Elder County to explore economic opportunities? And if so, then why does it need it to be adjacent to Great Salt Lake which is already recognized as an economic generator to the tune of $1.3B annually to Utah’s GDP? 

Taking advantage of regulatory loopholes-

The company is in the process of carving out an unsightly blot on the landscape under a Class I permit but it has no intention of operating as a Class I facility because it’s not commercially viable. It’s able to do this because the construction requirements for Class I and Class V facilities are identical. And it’s taking advantage of an unfortunate loophole in the existing regulatory requirements that allows the construction of landfill facilities to begin even before contracts with waste providers have been secured. And even before a robust market analysis has been conducted to determine whether additional capacity for nonhazardous solid waste is even needed. It just can’t begin storing any wastes. This loophole allowed the company to get a jump start on the construction under the assumption that it would get its Class V permit in short order. Given that its already spent close to $16 million of state grant money in construction, the company probably felt getting the permit was a safe bet. The real money is in accepting out-of-state waste that nobody else wants –  California Hazardous (Cal-Haz) waste, and coal ash (or in the regulatory jargon: coal combustion residual). This is especially true given the location’s ready access to a main east-west rail line.  Apparently, there’s big money to be made storing the really nasty stuff.

Adding insult to injury, the company has begun the work without securing bonding arrangements to ensure that the state has funds to reckon with the landscape if the owners decide to walk. If wastes have been received, the state would have to relocate them. If not, the state would treat the site much like an abandoned building without reclamation of the land. Either way, taxpayers would be left holding the bag. 

A “Needs Assessment Report” for the Class V permit was submitted by the company along with its application to the Division. A review for data validation and analysis by a third party to “fulfill the requirements of Section 19-6-108, subsections (10) and (11), of the Utah Solid and Hazardous Waste Act was completed on July 10, 2017. The findings are extremely troubling. “ Overall the analysis does not fully comply with the requirements of the Act as it is missing content to meet all statutory requirements, does not provide a robust market analysis and therefore does not establish the need for the facility, and has several important data and information gaps.”  Among those gaps, the report fails to provide potential environmental impacts. 

So where does all this take us? 

The application is on hold until the Division receives the completed Needs Assessment Report. Meanwhile, the Division has received comments from the Utah Geological Survey, Division of Wildlife Resources, Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, GSL industries, and the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council identifying specific concerns about the project. You can read them at If the Division determines that a Class V permit has merit and meets specific evaluative criteria a draft will go out for public comment. There is no question that FRIENDS will be there to challenge a land use that has negative and long-term impacts on Great Salt Lake. We hope you’ll be there with us. 

In saline,