A number of reasons are emerging as to why development plans in Salt Lake's Northwest Quadrant have rarely been realized. Not the least of which is what lies buried beneath the site.
For nearly two decades, a piece of the planned inland-port site—a wedge of land on 7200 West just north of Interstate 80—served as a municipal landfill. The landfill closed in the late 1970s, but contaminants such as heavy metals and other volatile pollutants remain buried there, posing a pricey obstacle for any party planning to redevelop the property.
A chunk of the landfill already has been reclaimed, but nearly 800 acres of buried waste remains. A plume of contaminated groundwater has collected within the old landfill's basin and, according to state environmental regulators, has begun to leak onto an adjacent property to the west. And decades of studies conducted thus far suggest the possible presence of potent industrial chemicals—but haven't located the source.
Preparing the property for an inland port will be complicated, says Bill Rees, who oversees voluntary cleanup programs for the state's Division of Environmental Response and Remediation. State real estate managers have already budgeted nearly $150 million for the cleanup alone.
"It's different than your corner gas station," Rees tells City Weekly. "An old landfill? There will be challenges."
Arsenic and Old Waste
Salt Lake City opened what's now known as the North Temple Landfill in the late 1950s. It closed in 1979, along with dozens of other landfills across the country that could not afford to implement new federal environmental controls, according to David Bird, who manages the North Temple Landfill and other contaminated sites for the Utah Division of Environmental Response and Remediation.
After the landfill's closure and up until the late '90s, the Environmental Protection Agency considered designating the property as a Superfund site—a designation for a polluted location requiring long-term hazardous material cleanup. They conducted numerous environmental studies and identified dozens of pollutants, but ultimately concluded that the site wasn't contaminated enough to warrant emergency action.
Since then, additional studies have detected high levels of lead, arsenic, barium, various pesticides and petroleum compounds similar to gasoline and diesel fuels in groundwater on and near the site.
The presence of heavy metals like lead and arsenic is of particular concern, says Denni Cawley, executive director of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
"If they move, they can be ingested or inhaled," she says. "They can get into the water—these are ways it can enter our system."
Heavy metals are potent neurotoxins, Cawley explains. Exposure, especially at a young age, is associated with behavioral problems, brain damage, birth defects and cancer.
The water definitely isn't safe to drink. But it's also naturally saline and therefore undrinkable, so Rees says he has a hard time seeing how the site, which is capped and covered with vegetation, poses an immediate public health risk.
"I don't see an eminent threat to the public," he says. "What I do see is an old, abandoned landfill in a neighborhood whose economics are going to change."
The cleanup technology exists—and has for some time. The real issue is cost—whether the demand for land is great enough to justify the large expense associated with removing the contaminated water and waste, or finding an appropriate method of developing around the site.
For decades, the economics didn't pan out. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Suburban Land Reserve, a subsidiary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, managed to develop 208 acres of the originally 1,000-acre landfill into a business park known as Bonneville Center. But they did so by digging up the waste on the easternmost edge of the North Temple site—the least-contaminated portion of the property—and re-interring it on the west side of the landfill.
The remaining 800 or so acres have remained largely untouched ever since. A shooting range occupied one piece of the property for a few years. Between 2009 and 2013, waste from the construction of the downtown City Creek center was dumped in the southwest corner of the landfill property. This demolition material—concrete, brick, excavated soil, and so on—remains on the site, according to a report prepared for state regulators earlier this year.
So when the property changed hands and came under the purview of the Utah School and Institutional Lands Administration, Rees sensed an opportunity: If SITLA found a way to develop the property, it might also provide the funds to finally clean it up.
Similarly, Salt Lake City officials are hopeful the inland port will come with a silver lining for the North Temple Landfill.
"It's one of those old landfills where it could probably sit there forever if you weren't trying to develop it," Vicki Bennett, Salt Lake City's sustainability director, says. "It wouldn't have a really high risk, but now that they're developing it, it is an opportunity to clean it up."
Ring Around the Landfill
The exact boundaries of the inland port have yet to be determined, says Rodger Mitchell, an assistant director of real estate development for SITLA. But there's a good chance that the port will overlap at least part of the old North Temple Landfill.
Building the inland port is going to require space for at least 8,000 feet of straight, uninterrupted railroad track, Mitchell says. And, there are only so many places near Salt Lake where that's still available.
Fortunately, Mitchell says, landfill cleanups aren't "rocket science." Hundreds of landfills across the nation have been successfully redeveloped. SITLA has even cleaned up a few small 5-10 acre landfills in the past.
"But nothing to this scale," he concedes.
The primary challenge of the North Temple Landfill, Mitchell and state regulators agree, is the groundwater contamination underneath it.
The way the landfill was built has made it essentially a giant, clay-lined bathtub, Rees says. Water trickles into the site and pools at the bottom, allowing various pollutants to seep in and concentrate over time.
"It's a big swimming pool. The water just comes in and sits," Mitchell says. "That's the biggest challenge with that site."
And, despite being surrounding by a thick layer of clay, a report completed this past April confirmed that the contaminated groundwater has leaked out of the landfill's western perimeter.
It hasn't gone very far, Rees notes, because there's relatively little groundwater movement in the area. But the landfill definitely is leaking, he says.
Since the water won't be used for drinking, the water-borne pollution isn't the immediate problem. The trouble is what the water contains: volatile solvents and petroleum products. Those particular pollutants are prone to producing gasses that seep up through soils. When structures are built over contaminated plumes such as this one, he says, gasses can accumulate within buildings, potentially impacting human health.
According to the April report documenting soil and water contamination on the property immediately west of the North Temple Landfill, soil-vapor monitoring found high levels of multiple harmful gasses were seeping out. At least five different chemicals exceeded limits associated with an increased risk of cancer.
This will have to be dealt with, Rees says. But, there are ways around it. The state might avoid building any structure on top of the contaminated groundwater areas. Or it might install vapor barriers over the water to prevent the gasses from rising to the surface.
But actually cleaning up all the trash and relocating it to another site? At this scale, according to Rees, that's probably not possible.
"Odds are something is going to remain on that site," he says.
Easy Being Green?
Despite the size of the task, SITLA has ambitious cleanup plans.
The Trust Lands Authority has been looking into a process that would allow the state to dig up the trash on site and then pump up the contaminated groundwater for treatment. The trash then would be buried beneath a waterproof cap to prevent water from leaching in and creating the same kind of contamination scenario in the future. The capped area then would be converted into a park with green-space paths for bicycles and walking.
"If we can get the water cleaned up and put a protective barrier around [the landfill]," Mitchell says, "I think we can take care of one of the larger environmental problems that the city has."
The downside, he says, is that it's going to be time consuming and costly to remove and treat the water. The current estimated budget is about $140 million, and Mitchell says the full cleanup could take 10-15 years.
But these plans are preliminary. Before the state Division of Environmental Response and Remediation will even begin to assess SITLA's plan for cleaning up the site, the SITLA has to complete an adequate site characterization to describe the kinds of wastes and hazards present in the landfill.
That process is ongoing; SITLA has already spent about $1 million on characterization, Mitchell says, and they hope to have their remediation plan in the works within a year.
But even with a completed characterization of the site, once you start digging around in an old landfill, there's always a distinct possibility of coming across something unexpected.
"That's the challenge of the landfill," Mitchell says. "You don't know until you start digging it up."
There are, of course, rumors about the wild kinds of waste that could be present in a landfill of this age. A common one is that radioactive waste from the state's research universities might have been dumped there at one point. But if there were radiation on site, Rees and Mitchell agree, it would have been detected by now.
More problematic, in Rees' eyes, is the question of where the groundwater contamination came from. It is theoretically possible that household waste such as oil-soaked rags or solvents caused the plume. The large amount of pollutants present in the water, though, suggest an industry-related source.
But there's no smoking gun. The multitude of tests and samples conducted at the landfill so far have yet to turn up anything like an industrial-size barrel of diesel or gasoline.
At the same time, Rees says, if there's petroleum products and industrial cleaners showing up in the test samples it's easy to assume that "something got in there."
SITLA is prepared to deal with unexpected finds. They already have a $10-million budget for contingencies. And because of the large amount of clay in the soils surrounding the landfill, Mitchell says, anything they do find is likely to be an isolated problem.
"That's the probability," he says. If industrial wastes show up, "that will be a million-dollar problem and we'll just have to take care of it. ... If we find Kryptonite, we'll have to deal with the Kryptonite."
"It wouldn’t have a really high risk, but now that they’re redeveloping it, it is an opportunity to clean it up."
Salt Lake City Sustainability Director
Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment agrees with Salt Lake's Sustainability Department: Cleaning up the North Temple Landfill could be a boon for the environment, but only if it is executed properly.
There's been a tendency, Cawley says, to discuss the inland-port site and the issues surrounding it as if the property were an isolated island, surrounded by empty space. But it's not.
"That is a vibrant community," she says. "They have families living there."
If officials don't take proper care, unearthing the landfill could release the heavy metals known to be present, causing "long-term consequences down the road, especially for children," she says.
There is, according to the EPA, no level of exposure to lead that is considered safe for children. Even a pinch of lead-laden dust, Cawley points out, can have "serious consequences for the IQ of a child."
This is especially important on Salt Lake's west side, which tends to be less affluent than the benches. In many cases, Cawley says, parents of children in these neighborhoods wouldn't have the financial means to relocate their families if construction at the North Temple site created an environmental hazard.
"It's not something they can decide to stay away from," she says.
Environmentally hazardous sites have the potential to add to the vicious cycle that keeps so many Americans trapped in poverty. Industrial sites are more likely to be developed in low-income communities, and exposure to pollutants such as lead can cause permanent brain damage in the children who grow up there, decreasing their future earnings potential.
So it's hard to tell, Cawley says, whether building an inland port on the North Temple Landfill will be a net benefit or loss for residents in the immediate vicinity.
"It's going to take a lot of funds," she says. "It's going to take a long time, and if they don't do it properly, then it's better to leave it alone."