Box Elder lawmaker has mixed feelings about pushing Promontory landfill approval
The Great Salt Lake can be seen from the proposed site of a landfill on Promontory Point on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016. Promontory Point Resources, LLC, currently has a permit for a landfill at the location, but is applying for a Class V permit that would allow them to accept non-hazardous waste from around the region as well as from other states.
Sen. Peter Knudsen is a Utah Senate Republican representing District 17, which includes Box Elder, Cache and Tooele counties.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated what waste Promontory Point Resources would accept and when the state received a permit application. We regret the errors.
Approval for a large landfill on the Great Salt Lake’s Promontory Point sailed through the Utah Legislature two years ago. Now, the lawmaker who backed the measure says he wasn’t fully aware of the facts or demand for urgent action.
The owners, Promontory Point Resources LLC, or PPR, helped rush a joint resolution through the 2016 legislative session. It was proposed and passed in the 11th hour, just before the 45-day bill-passing bonanza ended.
The resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Lee Perry, recently said the measure was presented to him as an urgent matter, tied to an immediate economic opportunity. Confusion about what type of waste would be accepted, where waste would come from and local support for the project were essentially unheeded.
Now, two years later, PPR is seeking clearance to accept out-of-state waste at the 2,000-acre property, located on the southern tip of their namesake peninsula.
“I have to look back and say, ‘It’s been two years; we haven’t seen it come together,'” Perry said in a recent interview. “Was the demand necessary?”
When Perry, a Box Elder County resident, spoke favorably of the landfill to his fellow lawmakers, he implied Wasatch Front municipalities could send their garbage to Promontory Point. He also said that Union Pacific was on board with providing train access to the site — there’s already a railroad causeway that runs across the lake.
Perry said he wasn’t aware at the time that the company would pursue coal ash, incinerator ash, contaminated soil and industrial waste.
“That’s not what they told us at the time,” he said. “Nope, I was never told that.”
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But even if PPR wanted municipal trash, municipal waste managers for Box Elder, Weber and Davis counties recently told the Standard-Examiner they never had much interest in trucking their garbage to Promontory Point. Some even said sending local waste by rail wouldn’t be financially feasible.
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PPR spokesman Brett Snelgrove confirmed the company’s focus is on collecting industrial and commercial waste, both inside and outside of Utah.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality granted the Promontory site a Class I permit back in 2014. The future landfill hasn’t actually been used yet, but the Class I permit allows non-commercial waste so long as the owners contract with a local municipality, like a county or city.
In 2016, when PPR acquired the entire property, they started working to get a “Class V” permit, which allows waste from outside the county and/or outside Utah and allows them to sign commercial waste contracts with private companies.
Neither permit allows anything defined as “hazardous waste” but the official definition of “non-hazardous” includes some controversial materials, such as coal ash.
Coal ash is exactly what it sounds like — the byproduct of burned coal. Environmental advocates have for years urged the Environmental Protection Agency to designate it as hazardous, arguing it could contaminate groundwater and waterways with arsenic and other heavy metals.
But the material is “one of the largest types of industrial waste generated in the United States,” according to the EPA’s website.
The Obama administration waffled on changing the designation, according to 2010 reporting by the Scientific American. If labeled “hazardous,” it could cause huge repercussions for construction industries and cause soaring prices for waste management of coal ash disposal.
SEQUENCE OF APPROVAL
There are several hoops to jump through in order to go from handling household trash to commercial waste.
The Class V designation must be supported by relevant local governments, the Utah Legislature and the Governor. Owners must also get approval through the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control, a branch of the DEQ.
There isn’t a sequence of approval outlined in the law. The push by Promontory Resources’ six lobbyists to take care of the legislative approval first — before submitting the DEQ application or getting formal approval from Box Elder County — raised some eyebrows on the Capitol in 2016.
Perry first presented his joint resolution, HJR 20, in the House Committee of Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment. There was just over a week left in the session.
He recalled feeling pressure to get the resolution approved because landfill lobbyists hinted they could miss out on a business opportunity.
“At the time l was told, ‘business-wise, it’s all ready to happen; if we don’t get all the pieces, it’s not going to happen,'” Perry said. “Do we tell a business, ‘Sorry, you have to wait … until next year’? That’s a difficult balance.”
Rep. Melvin Brown expressed his concern during the 2016 committee hearing about backing class change before having insight from the DEQ in hand.
“Are we just saying ‘OK, somebody’s got an idea; we approve it’?” Brown said. “Or are we responsible to get to know and understand the technical part before we have the responsibility of approving it?”
Brown argued approval from state lawmakers and the governor should help ensure the site is truly in demand. Right now there are 11 Class V landfills in Utah.
Other lawmakers on the committee asked if Box Elder County approved of the request. Perry said a resolution of support from the county would likely be approved the same night.
As it turns out, the county still hasn’t issued any formal approval for the class change. Months after the legislative session ended, a $35 million bond for PPR to develop the site was approved under their Class I permit.
Box Elder County Commissioner Jeff Scott confirmed there’s never been formal action on approving a Class V landfill. He said they’re waiting to hear from DEQ and the governor.
Despite lawmakers’ concerns, the joint resolution was recommended unanimously by the committee. On March 7, 2016, it passed the House with no discussion and only two “no” votes. On March 10 — the last day of the legislative session — it passed the Senate, 19-5.
The bill’s Senate sponsor, Peter Knudsen, and Sen. Scott Jenkins of Ogden both made erroneous statements at the time about waste already being processed at Promontory — property owners only began building landfill infrastructure last spring.
When called for comment, Knudsen told the Standard-Examiner he didn’t remember discussing or sponsoring any bills about waste disposal.
A year after the 2016 legislative session ended, the DEQ received PPR’s Class V permit application. The paperwork included pieces never brought up to lawmakers, including a needs assessment highlighting their intention to seek coal ash, contaminated soils and industrial waste from multiple states. The application raised alarm among many advocates of the sensitive Great Salt Lake ecosystems.
Perry said now he looks to DEQ to suss out the details and determine whether a landfill will be environmentally safe and useful on Promontory Point.
“I don’t know enough about the product they want to bring in. Do we have other places in the state that are currently doing it? That’s why I’d like to hear from DEQ,” he said. “These are the folks who have the degrees in this.”