The following story was written and reported by B. I. Empey and photographed by Chris Federer in partnership with The Utah Investigative Journalism Project and The Salt Lake Tribune.
Gabriel Blackhelm has lived near the Great Salt Lake his entire life. He spends much of his time at the lake enjoying a place he knows intimately and cares about deeply.
“The Mormon pioneers saw themselves as being latter-day Israelites who were in exile,” Blackhelm says. “Can you imagine crossing the Plains with that mentality that this is your Exodus? And then you get to a place that is just like the Dead Sea. The Great Salt Lake has a profound place in Mormon heritage for that reason.”
So it’s understandable that Blackhelm and other Box Elder County residents are concerned that the Great Salt Lake could become home to one of the country’s biggest industrial landfills, a planned repository for coal ash and other out-of-state waste streams hauled by train.
Promontory Point Resources LLC is a privately owned commercial landfill that is authorized to accept 385 million tons of waste. The company says it wants to take in-state refuse to help solve the coming squeeze between limited local landfill space and a rapidly growing northern Utah population.
At the same time, the company is seeking a state permit that would allow it to import industrial waste, including coal ash, from around the country. This follows a recent economic analysis concluding the company would lose money serving only Utah cities and companies because of insufficient market demand in the next 10 to 15 years.
On the other hand, the Box Elder County-commissioned study says the company could make substantial profits by accepting industrial waste, including toxic coal ash and contaminated soils from throughout the western United States. These materials would be shipped mostly by rail to Utah and deposited on a 2,000-acre parcel. According to public testimony of the landfill engineer, that site would lie 500 feet from the lakeshore.
Billions of dollars in prospective revenue are at stake over the coming decades for the owners of Allos Environmental, the parent company of Promontory Point Resources. Based on regulatory documents, Box Elder County could expect to profit, too: potentially $700 million-plus over the operating life of the landfill from its $2 per ton fee.
As environmentalists in Utah focus on the fate of Bears Ears National Monument, Blackhelm and others are trying to raise awareness of the quietly progressing project near the shores of the Great Salt Lake.
As the largest saltwater lake in the Americas, the lake provides a “hemispherically important ecosystem for migratory birds,” according to the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program. It supports between 2 million and 5 million shorebirds, some 1.7 million eared grebes, and hundreds of thousands of waterfowl during spring and fall migration.
“Promontory Landfill is totally out of the public consciousness,” Blackhelm says. “To bring all that filth and disease and disgust there for money, for $2 per ton of garbage, for them to destroy this place — it’s pure evil.”
Box Elder County Commissioner Jeff Hadfield understands the controversy surrounding the project. But he also acknowledges that landfills, if done right, can provide a great economic boost.
“Landfills can be a real lightning rod. Either people are for it or they’re against it adamantly. [Landfill opponents say] ‘we don’t want to become the landfill capital for the state of Utah,’ and I get that,” Hadfield says. He adds, though, that that “there’s a lot of money involved with landfills. That’s where it gets tricky.”
Brett Snelgrove, Promontory Point Resources’ general manager of Utah operations, says the company will solve Utah’s in-state municipal waste needs for decades to come and that the company is not currently interested in coal ash.
That didn’t stop the company from pitching the vast potential of this increasingly troublesome waste stream last year while seeking to use the state’s bonding authority to raise capital for the project. And earlier this year, Promontory Point Resources submitted an application to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for a Class V landfill, based in large part on the booming profits to be had accommodating the needs of other states to dispose of industrial waste at an approved site conveniently located immediately next to the Union Pacific rail line. In its DEQ application, the company wrote that rail access makes the site “ideal for receiving out-of-state waste.”
Despite a local petition with more than 200 signatures against the landfill on the lake peninsula, Hadfield says that the only real opposition to the project comes from rival landfill owners.
Tell that to Promontory resident Kris Udy, who lives about 10 miles from the landfill. Along with others in Box Elder County, she’s concerned that company plans are to go full throttle to operate as a Class V landfill, soliciting and accepting trainload after trainload of out-of-state waste.
She struggles to understand why county commissioners support the project and says it’s hard to get a straight answer.
“Well, it depends on when you ask them as to what they say,” Udy says. “The story changes so many times it’s hard to keep up.”
Promontory Point’s site has been permitted since the early 2000s as a Class I landfill — able to accept in-state Utah waste only. But no city has ever sent its waste there. Snelgrove says that since his company took ownership last year, it has begun approaching municipalities about possible contracts.
Snelgrove insists that Promontory’s business plans will solve municipal waste needs for northern Utah communities and that the local trash market is booming right along with the state’s population, which is expected to double by 2050.
“Landfills are running out of space,” Snelgrove says. “If you look at some of the surrounding landfills, they are in people’s backyards.”
“Operating as a Class I landfill, they can make money with in-state waste, but they’re looking at the bigger picture, planning and looking ahead,” Hadfield says. “They have an overall vision.”
The “Class V Needs Assessment Report” outlines Promontory Point Resource’s business plans to import controversial industrial waste — including materials California (but not the federal government) has classified as hazardous. This waste could include contaminated soils such as that removed from the Golden State Warriors‘ new arena site on old oil-refinery grounds in San Francisco.
Potential waste streams that would be hauled in on the Union Pacific Railroad line are dominated by vast stockpiles of coal ash from throughout the West, to the tune of 146 million tons. And, in an Oct. 16, 2016, meeting of a state economic development panel, company President Jon Angin said Promontory Point Resources hopes to import coal ash from “as far away as the Appalachian Mountains.”
The company stresses it won’t accept hazardous or radioactive waste — like the radioactive kind that has bedeviled Energy Solutions — and that it will use state-of-the-art technology to contain the waste it does gather.
“We’ve looked at it as a possibility,” Snelgrove says. “But at this time we don’t anticipate hauling coal ash.”
When asked about Promontory’s focus on coal ash especially in the Class V Needs Assessment submitted to the state, Snelgrove responded: “Just because it shows a need doesn’t mean we have to take it.”
An economic report produced last year by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah reveals questionable economics behind the landfill accepting only locally generated waste. It examined the company’s business model and reported that burying only in-state waste would result in millions of dollars of losses. “By 2024 an in-state market [for Promontory Point‘s landfill] has a negative cash flow of $56,300 [per year]. By 2031, the negative cash flow is $6,727,700,” the report said. Snelgrove disagrees with those numbers.
But based on the operating budget submitted by the company, revenues from coal ash would be more than double those from municipal solid waste by the third year of operation, the institute reported.
“It’s estimated that across the country, there are more than 735 [coal ash] surface impoundments containing somewhere between 3.1 billion and 3.8 billion tons of coal ash slurry,” according to waste industry publication Waste360. All coal ash impoundments will be required to meet Environmental Protection Agency regulations by the end of 2019, or close current impoundments and relocate coal-ash waste deposits within.
The nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center has forced cleanups or reached agreements with offending companies to clean up 64 million tons of coal ash in the southeastern United States. Frank S. Holleman III is a senior environmental attorney at the law center, and says that several catastrophic failures at coal-ash landfills as well as ordinarily permitted discharges of coal ash have led to massive water pollution across the United States.
A federal judge in Nashville earlier this month ordered the nation’s largest public utility — the Tennessee Valley Authority — to dig up coal ash at its Gallatin Fossil Plant and move it to a lined waste site where it doesn’t risk further polluting the Cumberland River. The utility has estimated the price tag at $2 billion.
“Coal ash is an industrial waste that contains lead, mercury, arsenic, chromium and other substances,” says Holleman. He points to EPA documents estimating coal-fired power plant discharges account for as much as 30 percent of all the toxic surface water pollution from industrial sources in America.
Snelgrove acknowledges that, if approved, Promontory Point will be among the nation’s largest industrial waste repositories. But he says the company is going above and beyond in developing safe barriers between the lake and the landfill. The company plans to construct a “bedrock formation” up to 200 feet below the surface to protect the surrounding environment from leaching contaminants, and he assures that there will be a 1,000-acre buffer around the landfill.
At an official meeting of the Great Salt Lake Advisory Board meeting in January, an engineer hired by Promontory stated the landfill would be at one point 500 feet from the shoreline of the lake. Snelgrove says his engineer must have misspoken at that public meeting, and he puts the distance at about 1,800 feet from the lake. The company didn’t specify fluctuations in the distance based on changing lake levels.
“Every other landfill, it’s like they say ‘I wish I’d done this, and now the EPA has changed this and that [requirement],’” Snelgrove says. “Obviously we can’t foresee the future, but we can overly exceed everything else with better safety requirements.”
Considering the dangers of coal ash and other forms of industrial waste the landfill will be zoned to accept, Holleman says that it is critical to not only understand the scientific consequences but also the social impact of disposing of gigantic amounts of coal ash and other industrial waste next to any body of water, especially one as iconic as the Great Salt Lake.
“Once you make a decision like that, you’re gonna live with it for at least a century. Maybe for a millennia,” Holleman says. “It’s a problem that does not go away.”
At a second Private Activity Bond board meeting Dec. 6, 2016, Promontory cut its bond request in half to $16 million and declared its business plan would be to accept in-state waste only. Still skeptical of the project, the board listed some of the concerns of its staff, including the reduced application now promised just 18 new jobs and the stark conclusion that “there is no public benefit to the state besides the $2 million in royalties paid to Box Elder County each year.”
Afterward, board member Ricky Hatch asked what recourse the board had should Promontory use any of the $16 million for a facility that would accept out-of-state coal ash. “I wanted to make sure there was some kind of teeth in the process in case they were trying to pull a fast one on us,” Hatch says. The response? The only enforcement mechanism available to the board if the company reneged on its plan was to deny it future bonding authority.
Again, Snelgrove says the company doesn’t plan to import coal ash and wanted approval just in case it desired that option “down the road.”
“I don’t recall any discussion of industrial or special waste,” says Perry, and only mention that the landfill “possibly” would bring in waste from out of state. Perry then consulted Box Elder County Commissioner Stan Summers, who, according to the lawmaker, said: “This is a good idea to move forward,” and that residents generally supported or didn’t care much about the project.
A year later, Perry says he plans to review his legislation and its effects more thoroughly — both with officials at the DEQ and with his constituents.
How to Be Consistent