30 May 2020

  • Online farmers market blossoms in Salt Lake City amid virus
    Cailee Collier, left, helps Paige Collett, right, sort an order as customers wait in line to pick up fresh produce ordered online in Salt Lake City on Sunday, May 24, 2020. Hand Sown Homegrown Farm workers prepared the orders the day before. When customers arrived to pick up the orders, they were left in boxes by customers’ cars to follow social distancing guidelines due to COVID-19. | Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

    People now ‘experiencing food-buying how I feel it should be,’ grower says.

    SALT LAKE CITY — Shoppers at a bustling Salt Lake City farmers market browse offerings each week like fresh greens, ruby-fleshed oranges and toasty loaves of sourdough.

    Then they click Add to Cart.

    As the coronavirus has halted traditional farmers markets, an online marketplace with a drive-thru pickup in Utah’s capital city is catering to more and more customers.

    Farmer Jared Hankins opened the Hand Sown Homegrown Farm Store as a way to fill the gap between winter and summer markets.

    Now in its third season, it has proven to be a natural fit for the limitations of social distancing. Orders have boomed to a weekly high of nearly 300 and he has hired a handful of employees to keep pace.

    This year, “I knew week one when this thing launched and I saw the amount of support, the amount of orders, that I had spent the two years in training, and it was now time for this to thrive,” Hankins said.

    “Now’s the time where people are experiencing food-buying how I feel it should be. I just think there’s been a turn in the general public’s mind now due to the COVID.”

    In addition to the offerings from Hankins’ West Jordan farm, other vendors have opened virtual stalls in his store, providing goods like pickles jam and local meat.

    Hankins harvests on Fridays and Saturdays. Then he and his employees package the online orders for pickup in the Sugar House neighborhood on Sundays, where shoppers arrive with their order numbers displayed on the dash.

    The vendors are netting about the same weekly sales they typically would at a traditional farmers market, Hankins said, and the vast majority of customers are returning week after week. Orders began to grow in the weeks after virus precautions and the March earthquake cut short the winter’s farm market in the historic Rio Grande Depot.

    Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News
    Greg Davis picks up fresh produce he ordered online in Salt Lake City on Sunday, May 24, 2020. Hand Sown Homegrown Farm workers prepared the orders the day before. When customers arrived to pick up the orders, they were left in boxes by customers’ cars to follow social distancing guidelines due to COVID-19.

    His shop isn’t unique. Small-scale growers across the nation have reported a similar boost as grocery store supplies ran low and shoppers sought to avoid crowded aisles, Hankins said.

    At a time when most thrills have been canceled, many of his new customers are getting a kick out of crafting meals with local ingredients. Several send notes about their new commitment to good, fresh food, Hankins said.

    He remains optimistic that Utahns will keep turning to local growers for fresh-picked fare.

    “Now they’ve had the experience of connecting with quality food and they won’t turn back,” he said.

    Fans of the downtown popular Downtown Salt Lake City Farmers Market will also notice significant changes this year.

    When the market opens June 13, shoppers will be asked to wait 6 feet apart, and vendors spaced at least 10 feet from each other will wear masks and gloves, selling only food like produce, eggs, honey and meat. There will be no food-truck section, and no arts or crafts.

    Unlike summers past, the market shouldn’t be viewed as a social event this year, said Alison Einerson, the executive director of Urban Food Connections of Utah.

    “It’s really a tremendous change, and it’s kind of sad, but we just want to make sure these vendors have an opportunity to sell the products and keep their business operating and do it in a really safe way,” Einerson said. 0

  • Could energy-efficient design be the cause of ‘sick buildings’ in the workplace?
    An environmental services employee cleans a patient room at the University of Utah Hospital. The room is also sanitized using a machine called a rapid disinfector that emits ultraviolet C-spectrum light. UV-C light is germicidal – meaning it neutralizes the DNA of bacteria, viruses and other pathogens thereby eliminating their capacity to replicate and trigger disease. | James Mwizerwa, University of Utah

    SALT LAKE CITY — As some Utahns begin to slowly return to workplaces closed by the pandemic, both employers and employees are examining how society can do so safely. But building design may hamper their efforts to keep COVID-19 transmissions from occurring.

    “As we become more and more aware of the impact the physical environment has on our own health and cognition, this is dramatically changing the way in which we think about our physical environment and building construction materials,” said Kate North, workplace strategist and adviser at Colliers International commercial real estate company. “Years ago, it was the movement around ‘let’s make sure all the buildings are sustainable’ — thinking that was the right thing because our focus was completely on energy efficiency and the best way to do that is to really think about tightening up that building.”

    “Because we focused on that piece of it, we created other problems,” she said. “That was really around the ability to create buildings that would invite and have the type of air quality that we need in terms of our own physical and health needs.”

    She said companies are likely to begin making concerted efforts to provide workspaces that can offer higher indoor air quality and ventilation as well as changing the way workspaces look going forward to help enhance health and safety among employees.

    “I’m working with a lot of clients right now, where not only are we doing a 6-foot distancing between spaces, but many of the workstations have been dropping down in height over the past five years,” she noted. “Now, to be able to support the COVID implications, people are ordering screens and partitions to get them up around 60 inches high.”

    North said workspaces are becoming more compartmentalized to minimize potential health risks.

    “Psychologically, people feel the need to have more protection from each other with a (virus) spread and most of those surfaces and workstations are becoming more wipeable,” she said. “In the past, we’ve had panel systems and things that have been more sound absorbing. And some of the older materials are in question in terms of how much are they absorbing the virus from an air quality perspective. But there are new materials that can actually become antimicrobial and actually begin to help clean and freshen the air, or at least reduce the concerns about the spread of the virus.”

    Speaking this month during a Facebook Live online forum, Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard University, explained what provides a healthy environment in office buildings.

    “Most buildings meet code and standards, the problem is that 100 years ago we used to set ventilation standards — the amount of fresh outdoor air that comes in — based on infectious disease transmission,” he said. “In the ’70s, we switched that to be largely around energy conservation, and what we did is we tightened up our building envelopes. We stopped letting our buildings breathe, and we created and brought in this era of sick buildings. So we lost our way a bit there in terms of designing and operating buildings for health, as opposed to these other conditions.”

    He said a lot of the recommendations he has made in recent months are things that people could do right now in their building, their office, their home or car based on what they have and what their current heat, ventilation and air conditioning system can perform effectively.

    “If you can increase that fresh outdoor air, increase the filter efficiency — that’ll go a long way to addressing airborne roots of exposure, and then the increased cleaning and disinfection protocols and then maintaining the physical distancing and washing,” he said. “We’re trying to address all three modes of disease transmission so it’s going to require not just doing a better job with the (HVAC) system, but it’s all these other controls as well.”

    Meanwhile, one designer said the technology already exists to make our workplaces safe from contagions like coronavirus.

    “The two things that really are important with COVID-19 — it’s touch and it’s airborne. So you’re transmitting by touch or by breathing in the pathogen,” said Karl Heitman, president of Heitman Architects in Chicago. “What we’re doing to buildings is to try to reduce all the chance for touch — operating controls through wireless technology, motion detectors for main doorways so that as you approach the door the motion detector opens the door; retrofitting doors and major hallways to be touchless and modifying elevators to be touchless.”

    He also noted there is a ultraviolet C-spectrum light device that can disinfect cellphones or other electronic devices.

    “There’s a UV-C wand that’s like the wand that you would have in an airport that detects metal when they go through (security),” Heitman explained. “But this one you can pass over a keyboard or a telephone, your work surface at night and it will just basically wipe out any pathogens.”

    And the technology is advancing further.

    “They’ve outfitted an indoor drone that has UV-C light on it that could be programmed for (a) nightly pass, kind of like a Roomba vacuum cleaner,” he said. “After you leave the office, it would basically fly all the way around and clean.”

    UV-C light is germicidal — meaning it neutralizes the DNA of bacteria, viruses and other pathogens thereby eliminating their capacity to replicate and trigger disease. The method is nonchemical, relatively inexpensive and requires little maintenance.

    “We’re looking at installing a UV spectrum light in ducts and air conditioning HVAC systems. The air conditioning systems developed today are already set up to receive that kind of UV-C light modules,” he said.

    He said the systems are not that expensive and there are also units that are available for residential properties and houses.

    One local hospital already employs UV-C light.

    “We use the (UV-C unit) for our disinfection,” said Alessia Banning, infection prevention control director at University of Utah Health. “We use it in the terminal cleaning of all patients that have an infection that requires sort of isolation precautions.

    If you’re in with COVID or if you’ve got... some bug that can get passed from patient to patient, we’re going to radiate your room after you’re discharged,” she said. “Or if you’ve got a burn and you’re going to be here for several months, we’ll do it while you’re in the operating room to keep the room clean.”

    She said the technology has been in use for several years and has been quite useful amid the coronavirus outbreak. For medical applications, the UV-C units cost approximately $100,000 a piece, but units can be less expensive for other applications.

    “Various bugs have different sensitivities to radiation. We usually use the setting for the most difficult bacteria to kill, which are spore-forming bacteria,” Banning said. “We do have the option with COVID to lower the level of radiation, but we always keep it really high to kill the toughest bugs. We’ll place the unit in the room, flip it on and it will run for a duration that is usually around 15 minutes to get to up to a point where it will kill spores.”

  • TestUtah lab officials defend accuracy, decry ‘undue’ extra scrutiny
    Katlyn Langston, medical lab technician, does RNA extraction for COVID-19 testing in an oKtopure at Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem on Thursday, May 28, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

    MountainStar official questions if public scrutiny has been a ‘competitor-driven issue’

    COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — MountainStar Healthcare officials say they’re running out of patience with ongoing criticisms and misinformation that continue to circulate about the provider’s COVID-19 test procedures and note that, in some cases, those issues are being raised by direct competitors that are embedded in the state’s pandemic response teams.

    Criticisms first surfaced when an April 14 email written by Intermountain Healthcare infectious disease physician Dr. Bert Lopansri was released publicly that took aim at the COVID-19 tests being performed at Timpanogos Regional Hospital.

    “I worry about having tests routed to a small community hospital lab inexperienced with highly complex molecular testing that uses a test from an unknown company without much in vitro diagnostic experience that has a higher limit of detection compared to tests offered by more established vendors,” Lopansri wrote. “A pandemic is not the time for amateurs to learn.”

    In a wide-ranging interview Thursday, MountainStar Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Baumann responded directly to that claim, noting Timpanogos Regional is one of eight MountainStar facilities which themselves are part of the largest health care system in the nation. That parent company, Nashville-based HCA Healthcare, operates over 180 hospitals in 21 states and two countries. Baumann noted that Utah MountainStar facilities are providing health care to almost a quarter of all Utahns.

    Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
    Dr. Michael Baumann, MountainStar Healthcare’s chief medical officer, answers questions about TestUtah COVID-19 testing at the MountainStar Healthcare office in Midvale on Thursday, May 28, 2020.

    “To call a system with over 180 hospitals with labs... ‘amateurs’ in management and direction of labs is ridiculous,” Baumann said.

    ‘Built-in prejudice’

    Dr. Heather Signorelli, who oversees laboratory operations at all of HCA’s facilities, said the network’s facilities have collectively processed tens of thousands of COVID-19 tests across the U.S. and have the advantage of being able to share insight and best practices across and between its member hospitals and labs.

    She said the ongoing scrutiny has been baseless and ill-timed.

    “It’s one thing to have a moment where you want to verify that the appropriate steps are being made in order to evaluate a methodology,” Signorelli said. “But to keep going after it time and time again... it is really disappointing.

    “We’re in the middle of a pandemic and there are plenty of other things we could be spending our time doing.”

    Baumann, who said MountainStar’s No. 1 priority is its patients, said if there were any issues at all with the lab’s COVID-19 testing accuracy, “I’d be all over it.”

    But, Baumann said, TestUtah’s tests have now cleared multiple accuracy tests with flying colors — and yet he said there continues to be “undue” additional scrutiny that isn’t equally applied to other labs conducting COVID-19 testing in Utah.

    “There is almost a built-in prejudice in favor of these other labs,” Baumann said. “We’re all developing and using new tests, so all of these labs should have the same level of scrutiny, and I think the scrutiny is being generated because this lab is a new entrant into the environment and a direct competition site for ARUP and IHC.”

    Timpanogos Regional has been processing COVID-19 tests both for its own patients and those who get tested via the TestUtah program using a test kit manufactured by the Salt Lake-based medical diagnostics firm Co-Diagnostics. Both the Co-Diagnostics test and the lab that processes them in Orem are authorized under U.S. Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorization guidelines.

    The efficacy of those tests was called into question by Lopansri who, in his correspondence, noted the low rate of positive tests being run by the Timpanogos lab was evidence that something was wrong with the testing process.

    Lopansri is a member of the Utah COVID-19 Task Force, assembled by Gov. Gary Herbert, as well as an employee of Intermountain Healthcare, a competitor of MountainStar and the largest health care provider in Utah. While Intermountain, U. Health and other providers are represented on the task force, no representatives of MountainStar were invited to participate on the board, according to Baumann.

    Lopansri’s concerns, according to his correspondence, stemmed from data reflecting that tests being processed by Timpanogos Regional, under contract with the company leading out on the TestUtah effort, Nomi Health, were showing a lower rate of positives than tests being conducted by other entities, including Intermountain Healthcare and ARUP, another competitor of both Mountainstar and Co-Diagnostics.

    “What alarms me the most is that they are expanding collection and testing with these unknowns about how their test performs,” Lopansri wrote. “If correct, I urge you to halt their testing until we understand why their results differ so much from what other labs are reporting as this is a potential public health disaster that will be compounded by the fact that they are constantly promoting themselves publicly while we are not.”

    Baumann said two batches of random sample testing assessments done in a side-by-side comparison with the state’s testing lab both returned results that were 100% accurate.

    There was also data available at the time that showed that while test results from those who tested at TestUtah drive-thru testing sites were notably lower than results from other testers, the tests processed by Timpanogos Regional of HCA’s own patients was within a percentage point or two of the stats from other providers.

    Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
    Lab assistant Andrew Sheffield plates patient samples for TestUtah COVID-19 testing at Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem on Thursday, May 28, 2020.

    Baumann said the lower positive rates coming from TestUtah testing tents are easily explained by different patient populations being tested. He pointed out that the positive rate for in-patient tests — those who had visited doctors due to symptoms — versus the lower rate of TestUtah results from those who only filled out an online assessment with lower barriers for referrals for testing, were a clear reflection of that contrast.

    Those MountainStar patients as well as individuals who scheduled tests through the TestUtah site all were assessed for COVID-19 using the Co-Diagnostics test kit processed by the Timpanogos Regional lab.

    “All of our labs should have the same level of scrutiny,” Baumann said. “Given what I think is undue level of scrutiny, in part started with an email from one of our competitors, puts this issue of ‘Is this a competitor-driven issue?’ on the table, and makes us have to consider that as part of what we look at when we see all that’s transpired since we became a part of TestUtah.”

    Lopransri, after discussing the issue with Co-Diagnostics and Timpanogos lab officials, sent an email May 1 addressing his “private” email to state officials, which he said was meant to “encourage prompt action to resolve concerns.”

    “Since my email was sent on (April 14), we’ve had a number of discussions about these differences,” he said. “The concerns remain, and we are committed to continuing the dialogue in order to resolve them.”

    Lopransri added: “As I stated in my conversation, I regret that the impassioned language that I used was made public. My goal was to spur action and was not intended to harm the reputation of the parties involved. We are all in this unprecedented battle together. It is important to the health of Utah citizens that we are all successful in providing accurate and timely testing.”

    Abandoned test

    If their tests had no accuracy issues, why, then, would MountainStar refuse to participate in a larger proficiency test other major Utah labs conducting COVID-19 testing had agreed to join in order to verify each others’ accuracy?

    To MountainStar officials, it was a matter of process and fairness. They didn’t like the idea of the test being run by one of their competitors, ARUP, without an independent reviewer.

    “We all along would have been happy to participate in a proficiency test that was fair, balanced and adjudicated by an independent third party,” Baumann said. “The proficiency test that was being offered was being, actually, designed and run by one of the lab directors at ARUP, which is one of our competitors.”

    So, instead, MountainStar agreed to a compromise. They worked out a smaller sample exchange, where MountainStar agreed to exchange three batches of samples, for a total of 130 samples, with the state’s lab to compare test accuracy.

    But those results were never released by the state health department. Instead, Gen. Jeff Burton, acting director of Utah’s Department of Health, said he decided against releasing the results because of problems with the samples, including a batch from the state’s lab that were not randomly selected, and some samples that were 10 days old, or too old to produce accurate test results.

    “That’s not really a fair assessment, and that’s not an accurate assessment,” Burton said. “So that’s why we said, ‘We want to do this again.’”

    Burton said state officials are planning to set up another proficiency test with a third-party review — but he’s also waiting for the results of a federal audit on Timpanogos lab (a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments audit).

    Burton and MountainStar officials note that if federal regulators had found anything major in their initial review of the Timpanogos lab, they would have shut it down. That didn’t happen.

    “Once I get that (audit), then we’re going to hammer out how we revalidate, and how to make them feel comfortable with how we do it so it doesn’t feel like an attack or hit on them,” Burton said.

    ‘Inaccurate information’

    Burton last week received a letter from a MountainStar attorney outlining concerns that the Timpanogos lab had been the subject of excessive scrutiny that had led to “inaccurate information” and a “distraction” from COVID-19 response.

    “We need your help to correct the public record regarding the tests and the lab, so that the Utah health care community can return its focus to providing our fellow residents with the high-quality health care they need and deserve during this critical time,” wrote attorney Kristy Kimball, in the letter dated May 21.

    Kimball wrote the state health department’s multiple reviews — requested despite the Timpanogos lab completing a testing validation recommended by the FDA in late March — “clearly confirm the accuracy of the tests processed by the Timpanogos lab.” She also listed a slew of reasons why “no further (state health department) reviews of the lab are now warranted.”

    In March, the Timpanogos lab completed FDA-recommended testing validation, she continued. “This required Timpanogos to send correlation samples (split samples over multiple days) to the Utah Public Health Laboratory, and UPHL’s test rests were 100% consistent with Timpanogos’ test results.

    “To be clear, this validation process confirmed that UPHL and Timpanogos had the same test results when testing the same samples,” Kimball wrote.

    But that didn’t assuage concerns.

    “Despite the universally positive results of that FDA-recommended validation process, the DOH raised concerns about ‘false negative’ test results from the Timpanogos lab,” Kimball wrote. “Although it vehemently disagreed with those concerns, Timpanogos agreed to work with the DOH to assuage those concerns and exchanged three additional sets of correlation samples with UHPL for a total of 130 samples.”

    The results of those tests included a 100% consistent test result with the first set of 40 samples randomly selected by Timpanogos. The second set of 50 samples, however, “unfortunately, due to conflicting instructions” from the state health department, were not tested by the state lab until about seven days after they were collected, Kimball wrote.

    “That delay increased the likelihood of unreliable test results, and not surprisingly, six of the 50 variances did not support the DOH’s stated concern of ‘false positives’ since five of the six variances showed that the Timpanogos lab results were ‘positive’ while the UPHL lab tests were ‘negative’ or ‘inconclusive,’” Kimball wrote.

    Then, a final set consisted of 40 frozen state lab samples sent by the state health department to the Timpanogos lab. Of those, “only three of the 40 samples showed a variance between the results reached by Timpanogos and UPHL,” Kimball wrote.

    “The Timpanogos lab has now completed four rounds of validation testing and none support the still-vague suggestion that it produces ‘false negative’ results,” Kimball wrote. “Moreover, Timpanogos’ results have matched UHPL’s results 98% of the time.”

    In a footnote, Kimball noted that “high correlation rate is even more impressive, considering that the ‘second’ and ‘final’ sample sets were chosen by the DOH, without any input from Timpanogos, and that 40 of the 50 ‘second’ set were ‘negative’ patient samples.”

    “We believe the DOH now has all the information it needs to feel confident about the testing work performed at the Timpanogos lab,” Kimball wrote, though she added if state officials want additional reassurance, the lab is participating in the College of American Pathologists’ first national survey on COVID-19 testing proficiency, and the results of the survey will be available in a few weeks.

    Kimball, concluding her letter, “respectfully” asked state health officials to “pause” reviews of Timpanogos lab, at least until the end of the College of American Pathologists’ survey.

    “The DOH’s reviews are unnecessary and distracting to the lab employees, and they will result in a further erosion of the otherwise good relationship between DOH and Timpanogos,” she wrote.

    Kimball also asked state officials to “cease any inaccurate and/or public criticism of the Timpanogos lab.”

    “That criticism is perpetuating a false narrative about Timpanogos, both generally and in the context of COVID-19 testing,” she wrote. “More importantly, however, it is undermining public confidence in Utah’s COVID-19 testing efforts.”

    Burton, asked about that letter on Thursday, said MountainStar’s concerns were fair.

    “They want a level playing field,” he said.

    However, Burton said that “additional scrutiny” has come because MountainStar, through the state’s TestUtah contracts with Nomi Health, are contracting with the state, and any concerns about accuracy need to be vetted.

    “When I’m the contractor, I have the right to know that the processes are valid and things are going well and so we need to do periodic review of that,” he said. “So I don’t apologize for it.”

    However, Burton credited the TestUtah tests for helping Utah expand its testing capacity to be in the top five states in the nation with high testing capacity.

    “They’ve helped us tremendously,” he said. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”

  • Trump’s fossil fuel agenda gets pushback from federal judges
    This Dec. 22, 2018, file photo shows a pump jack over an oil well along Interstate 25 near Dacono, Colo. Federal courts have delivered a string of rebukes to the Trump administration over what they found were failures to protect the environment and address climate change as it promotes fossil fuel interests and the extraction of natural resources from public lands. | David Zalubowski, Associated Press

    BILLINGS, Mont. — Federal courts have delivered a string of rebukes to the Trump administration over what they found were failures to protect the environment and address climate change as it promotes fossil fuel interests and the extraction of natural resources from public lands.

    Judges have ruled administration officials ignored or downplayed potential environmental damage in lawsuits over oil and gas leases, coal mining and pipelines to transport fuels across the U.S., according to an Associated Press review of more than a dozen major environmental cases.

    Actions taken by the courts have ranged from orders for more environmental analysis to the unprecedented cancellation of oil and gas leases across hundreds of thousands of acres in Western states.

    “Many of the decisions the Trump administration has been making are arguably illegal and in some cases blatantly so,” said Mark Squillace, associate dean at the University of Colorado Law School and a specialist in natural resources law. “They’ve lost a lot of cases.”

    Some of the most far-reaching rulings have come from U.S. District Judge Brian Morris, an appointee of former President Barack Obama posted in Montana.

    This month alone Morris canceled energy leases on several hundred thousand acres in cases that centered on potential harm to water supplies and greater sage grouse, a declining species. He also struck down a nationwide permitting program for new oil and gas pipelines in a lawsuit against the controversial Keystone XL oil sands pipeline from Canada.

    The rulings brought cheers from environmentalists who have looked to the judiciary to check Trump’s ambitions. But Morris was denounced by oil and gas industry representatives and allies in Congress as an “activist judge” inserting his own agenda into cases.

    The ire directed at Morris, a former clerk for the late conservative U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, appears to be politically driven, legal analysts said. Federal judges in other states — including appointees of both Democratic and Republican administrations — have also ruled against Trump.

    — In California, Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong, an appointee of George H.W. Bush, struck down the administration’s attempt to repeal a rule meant to ensure companies pay fair value for oil, coal and other natural resources from public lands.

    —In Colorado, Judge Lewis Babcock, a Ronald Reagan appointee, sided with conservation groups and said the administration’s review of 171 proposed natural gas wells didn’t look closely enough at the cumulative effect of drilling on climate change and the area’s mule deer and elk populations.

    —In Idaho, a magistrate judge canceled more than $125 million in oil and gas leases on public lands that are home to sage grouse, after determining the Trump administration illegally curtailed public comment.

    Administration officials said the courtroom setbacks had not stopped them from paring back burdensome regulations to create jobs and save taxpayer money while still upholding environmental protections and public health.

    “It is hardly surprising that these frequent-filer litigants can sometimes find forums to temporarily slow administrative actions,” Interior press secretary Ben Goldey said.

    Kathleen Sgamma with the Western Energy Alliance, which lobbies for oil and gas companies, said a better measure of the administration’s success is the growth in U.S. energy production under Trump. The U.S. overtook Saudi Arabia in 2018 to become the world’s largest oil producer.

    “The big picture is the administration’s ‘energy dominance’ agenda has been hugely successful,” Sgamma said. Trump deserves praise for recognizing that regulations hampered the industry’s growth and needed to be eased, she said.

    In the Keystone XL case, Morris ruled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had never justified use of a blanket environmental permit for construction of oil and gas pipelines through wetlands, streams and other waters. The Army Corps suspended the permitting program, affecting thousands of projects.

    U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, a Montana Republican, called the ruling “a massive overreach by an activist judge” that went beyond the court’s authority.

    President Donald Trump issued a special presidential permit for Keystone XL last year. The move came after Morris rejected an earlier permit and said officials had not adequately considered cumulative effects of greenhouse gas emissions and potential oil spills.

    Government attorneys have asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to take emergency action and overturn the pipeline ruling by Friday.

    A longtime colleague of Morris who served with him on Montana’s Supreme Court said his detractors should look more closely at his record.

    “He follows the rule of law,” said retired Justice Mike Wheat.

    Attorneys who sue on behalf of environmental groups have long sought out venues they believe favorable, but it hasn’t always worked out.

    In March, an Obama-appointed judge in California upheld the Trump administration’s repeal of a 2015 rule regulating hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for oil and gas.

    Last week, on the same day Morris canceled oil and gas leases on more than 300,000 acres of public lands in Montana and Wyoming, he ruled for the administration in a coal mining case brought by environmentalists and the Democratic attorneys general of California, New York, New Mexico and Washington.

    The judge had initially ruled against the administration and said its lifting of an Obama-era moratorium on coal sales was flawed. But he accepted Interior’s subsequent justification that the move had a negligible impact on climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.

    That case illustrates a growing frustration among environmental activists: While judges have ruled against Trump on climate change and other issues, that hasn’t stopped the administration from issuing flawed or incomplete environmental analyses then pushing forward until challenged in court again.

    “It’s like they are creating a whack-a-mole game that we have to play,” said Jeremy Nichols with Wildearth Guardians.

  • Unemployment claims high, but decline for 7th week in a row as Utah businesses reopen
    The Utah Department of Workforce Services’ main administration building in Salt Lake City. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

    SALT LAKE CITY — The number of new people filing for jobless benefits fell 13% this past week, the seventh consecutive weekly drop in applicants as more businesses reopen.

    The number of new claims in Utah was 5,455 for last week, part of 97,570 weekly claims filed.

    While claims are on the decline, the number of people seeking unemployment benefits is still at historic levels.

    The Department of Workforce Services reported that more than $26 million was paid in traditional unemployment benefits with an additional $49 million disbursed through the federal stimulus program that gives $600 to claimants. Another $760,779 went to people who qualify for the federally funded extended benefit payments.

    Total money provided to help the unemployed in Utah last week was nearly $76 million, the agency reported.

    The report showed that 2,278 new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims were also submitted. The program is available to those who are eligible for the state unemployment benefit, primarily those who are self-employed or gig (economy) workers.

    “That application volume is also down for four consecutive weeks. However, the number of benefits paid — that $8.1 million — is actually up for five consecutive weeks,” said Unemployment Insurance Division Director Kevin Burt.

    “What that is showing is that the demand is dropping, but we are starting to get better and better at processing those benefits.”

    The volume is still at historic levels, he noted.

    “We have now received the same amount of claims in the last 10 weeks that were filed over the previous three years, while successfully standing up all the federal stimulus benefits made available by the (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act,” he said.

    The industries that saw the highest percentage of claims this week were office and administrative support at 15%, sales and related occupations at 9%, and management at 8.7%. The counties in Utah that had the highest number of individuals file new unemployment insurance claims were Salt Lake County at 40%, Utah County 15%, Davis County at 8.4%, Weber County at 7.7% and Washington County at 3.5%.

    Meanwhile, new research conducted by Salt Lake County could offer a possible glimpse into of the local employment situation going forward.

    A study on the “Future of Jobs” was conducted last year using in-person interviews and local focus groups that resulted in reports about workers and jobs in an automated economy and a second report about employee values and satisfaction.

    The first report investigated the impact that automation would have on numerous industries in Salt Lake County where compiled data indicates a need to move to new in-demand employment options, according to a news release. The information could especially be vital as leaders develop long-range plans to form a more durable economy for a post-COVID Utah.

    The research showed that 33,400 Salt Lake County jobs are at 98% to 99% risk of becoming obsolete because of automation. The report also offers 11 policy recommendations to mitigate the expected employment loss.

    “When we undertook this research, we were looking to improve the lives of residents and help local businesses,” said Salt Lake County economic development director Blake Thomas. “In light of the current crises, this research is even more important to help guide decision-makers toward solutions that ensure the health, safety and economic security of our residents in a post-coronavirus economy.”

    The employee values report focused on steps employers could take beyond wages and benefits that would positively affect worker satisfaction and increase retention. Among the top findings were responses from all focus groups strongly highlighting the importance of an uplifting company “culture,” followed closely by workplace flexibility.

    “When combined with supportive company policies and sufficient resources, participants were willing and excited to demand a great deal of themselves to produce work they could be proud of,” the report states.

    This could not be more apparent after witnessing the pulling together of the workforce and community support during the past three months with COVID-19.

    Among the most valued attributes were the aforementioned flexibility, a supportive company culture, individual respect and workplace collaboration — each of which contributed greatly to employee retention. The report noted that though workers frequently applied for positions based on salary or job title, they were more likely to remain on a job that includes flexibility, creativity or autonomy.

    “These findings point to ways businesses can help their employees feel valued and appreciated, which in the context of the current health and economic crises where jobs essential to the functioning of society have been highlighted, may be more important than ever,” said Ruedigar Matthes, Salt Lake County economic development manager.

    “The research provides salient points of conversation on how to create a more resilient community that benefits everyone.”

  • A day at Hogle Zoo is different, yet the same amid pandemic
    Families social distance as they watch an elephant at Utah’s Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 26, 2020. The zoo as reopened with new regulations due to COVID-19. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

    SALT LAKE CITY — The lions sleepily lounged on their backs in the morning sun. The elephants lumbered in and out of view. The seals took speedy laps around their tank.

    And children pressed up against the fenced or glassed-in enclosures to catch glimpses of the exotic animals.

    A day at Utah’s Hogle Zoo amid the coronavirus pandemic isn’t all that different but at the same time it’s all different.

    One little girl scooted under the caution tape surrounding an otter statue and hugged and kissed the bronze figure, much to the “ews” and “yucks” of her helpless family.

    Steve Griffin, Deseret News
    An arrow painted on the ground guides visitors on a one-way trip through Utah’s Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 26, 2020. The zoo as reopened with new regulations due to COVID-19.

    Caution tape cordoned off all the statues at the zoo as well as the playground that would ordinarily be teeming with kids on a sunny evening with a chill in the air. Parents looking to take pictures of their children slurping from the iconic open-mouth lion drinking fountain had to settle for poses outside the tape.

    The indoor exhibits, too, are off-limits for now as the zoo has taken steps help keep visitors and workers safe when it reopened May 2 after being closed for 50 days.

    Green arrows painted on the pavement point visitors on a one-way path through the 42-acre park. The zoo restricts the number of guests each day to help ensure proper distancing and limits visits to two hours. Workers wear face coverings and visitors are encouraged to wear them as well.

    Steve Griffin, Deseret News
    Signs and arrows painted on the ground guide visitors on a one-way trip through Utah’s Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 26, 2020. The zoo as reopened with new regulations due to COVID-19.

    Signs reading “Protect the herd!” by staying 6 feet apart and “Caution: high touch point” remind people that life is different right now.

    On this recent day, some people were cautious, while others were not. A few people wore masks, but most didn’t. Some stayed back as a family gazed at the red pandas or monkeys, while others did not.

    Jeffrey and Tessa Beck were just happy to get out of the house with their four children ages 7 years to 3 months. They were living in China as the COVID-19 outbreak spread to the United States and were able to get back to Utah just a day before the travel restrictions.

    The Becks, of Alpine, said although the playground and some of the shops were closed, they could still enjoy watching the animals, though the felt like they had to keep moving.

    “We probably would have spent another hour or two here, but our two hours are up,” Jeffrey Beck said near the exit.

    Tessa Beck said some people observed social distancing, while others treated it as a normal day at the zoo. Everyone was different, she said, but added that the zoo is doing a good job to keep it safe.

    “The thing that worried us the most coming today to the zoo was the weather,” Jeffrey Beck said.

    Zoo spokeswoman Erica Hansen said the park has overall received positive feedback, though the wearing or not wearing of face masks has been the biggest source of contention. Some people have asked how the zoo cannot require masks, while others say how dare it suggest people wear them.

    “They’re just as vocal on both sides of that issue,” she said.

    Hansen said the zoo is sticking to Salt Lake County guidelines to help protect its front-line workers from trying to enforce a mask policy on someone who doesn’t think they should have to wear one.

    Still, she said people seem to be enjoying the opportunity to get out and stretch their legs.

  • Utah Port Authority’s first meeting in months went uninterrupted — thanks to COVID-19
    Area at I-80 near 7200 South where the Utah Inland Port is planned to be built in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

    Port board Zoom meeting was controlled, but critics still aired ‘green washing’ grievances

    SALT LAKE CITY — The controversial Utah Inland Port Authority Board held its first meeting in nearly eight months on Wednesday — and it was the first meeting the board has had in almost a year without being disrupted by protesters.

    But that likely is only because the meeting was held virtually via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Still, the online board meeting, much of which was spent reviewing the port authority’s five-year strategic business plan released last week, attracted dozens of public listeners and commenters, many of which continue to lambaste the project as one that will only damage the Wasatch Front’s air and quality of life, even as supporters argue it will actually do the opposite.

    In many ways, Wednesday’s meeting featured rehashing of the now years-old debate over whether Utah should develop an inland port in the 16,000-acre jurisdiction the Utah Legislature established west of the Salt Lake City International Airport — as well as “satellite” locations in rural Utah — for a global logistics hub meant to maximize import and export connections via truck, train and air connections.

    Supporters, including the port authority’s executive director Jack Hedge and commissioners from rural Utah counties, argue the generational project could solidify Utah’s place in the global logistics system, create thousands of high-paying jobs, and help coordinate warehouse and distribution growth that’s already coming in a way that would ensure the Utah port has minimal impact on air quality, traffic and other environmental issues.

    But critics say the idea that a port authority could be sustainable or green in any way is bogus — and one that will ultimately be driven by money rather than with prioritization of Utahns’ health and the sensitive wetlands that serve as bird habitat near the Great Salt Lake.

    A vision laid out in the port authority’s strategic business plan includes lofty green goals to bring electric trucks and cargo equipment, commercial electric charging infrastructure, air quality monitoring, dust control, environmental preservation buffer zones, environmentally friendly building standards and other strategies to mitigate its impact.

    Hedge has said Utah is positioned to build what could be the first green port — unlike anything that currently exists in the world — and distinguish itself to be not only the “crossroads of the West” but the “crossroads of the world.”

    Because the five-year strategic plan — which was presented to board members in Wednesday’s meeting, with no objections voiced — acts as a “framework” for decision-making, according to Hedge, it includes no specifics of how those goals will be reached. The future of the port authority and its development is in the hands of the port board, which will ultimately decide what projects get approved and what their requirements or financial incentives will be.

    Lee Stanhope, of Salt Lake City, urged the port authority board to reject the business plan.

    “While it contains a lot of wonderful ideas of what a green or sustainable future can be, it consistently uses terms like ‘supports,’ ‘promotes,’ ‘advocates for’ and ‘coordinates with’ without actually requiring that any of these events occur,” he said.

    Sarah Buck was skeptical the port authority would actually get approval to use its revenue for sustainable programs.

    “Have you worked with our Legislature?” she said. “I don’t think you’re going to have a lot of money for green incentives.”

    Other critics accused port authority officials of “green washing” the project, despite the fact it would be placed in a city among those that have the worst air quality in the country.

    “This is the worst place for an inland port, and trying to green wash it will not change it,” said Liz Buirley.

    But supporters including commissioners from rural areas like Carbon and Emery counties expressed support for the project moving forward, and eagerness to partner with the port authority to increase exports and jobs in their areas with “satellite” port locations.

    “We’re willing for it to be extremely large to take pressure off the Salt Lake Valley,” said Emery County Commissioner Lynn Sitterud.

    While Wednesday’s meeting was void of disruptions, critics took their grievances to Twitter, where they vented about the board plowing ahead with its business despite technical difficulties that some public attendees experienced while trying to access the meeting.

    Port officials required each participant to be given permission to access the Zoom meeting, and they were required to register for the meeting before being sent a link to join. Some had difficulty accessing the link until port authority officials provided a password. For some, like Joel Ban, it took an hour and a half after the meeting started to get access.

    Ban, frustrated by the meeting, questioned whether it broke open meetings laws by not having an anchor location — but one of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s executive orders enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic allows public bodies to hold electronic meetings without having an anchor location.

    Tussy King, of Salt Lake, said she also had trouble accessing the Zoom link and was only able to gain access by phone, leaving her unable to see the presentation slides shown during the meeting.

    Scoffing at a port official emphasizing the port authority has an “open door policy” for public engagement, King called the authority a “farce” in a tweet.

    “Going ahead with Zoom meetings during the pandemic is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg,” she tweeted.

    Deeda Seed, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity and a leader of the Stop the Polluting Port group, said she got a “barrage of messages” from people complaining they couldn’t get access to the meeting. She said she knew of at least 10 people who tried to listen to the meeting that weren’t able to.

    “So I hope you do better next time,” she told port officials.

    Seed, in an interview with Deseret News, called the online meeting “a very isolating experience” and “a truly terrible way to hold a public meeting.”

    However, many participants were able to access the meeting without issue.

    At one point, more than 130 people were logged on to attend, with 90 written comments submitted and 30 people who voiced their comments verbally, according to a tally by port officials.

    “We were pleased to see the level of participation tonight that was on par with our physical board meetings,” Hedge said in a statement after the meeting concluded Wednesday evening. “Whether it’s a physical or virtual meeting, we will always strive for a streamlined experience and will continue to improve that process.”

    The port board is scheduled to meet again June 22, where it is expected to take action on the strategic business plan.

  • Zions Bancorporation announces tech campus project on former Superfund Sharon Steel Mill site
    Brandon Fugal, Colliers International chairman, points out the spot of ground that Zion Bancorporation plans to build a technology campus at the former Sharon Steel Mill site in Midvale on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. The land near the Jordan River at 7800 South and Bingham Junction Boulevard was once an EPA Superfund site and has since been cleaned up. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

    MIDVALE — Zions Bancorporation plans to build a technology campus on the former Sharon Steel Mill Superfund site in Midvale, which will hone in on sustainability measures like harnessing solar energy and supporting the surrounding natural habitat.

    The 400,000-square-foot campus, slated for completion in mid-2022, will be erected to accommodate regional bank employees from 11 different sites. In doing so, it will become Zions Bancorporation’s primary technology and operations center, consolidating operations and saving office costs.

    Zions Bancorporation, which had an annual net revenue of $2.8 billion in 2019 and has more than $70 billion in total assets, operates in 11 different states throughout the western U.S. The financial service company is currently headquartered in Salt Lake City.

    “This environment-friendly campus will help us attract the best technology talent in the country while also reducing our overall facilities costs,” said Harris H. Simmons, Zions Bancorporation chairman and CEO, in a Wednesday news release.

    Zions Bancorporation
    Zions Bancorporation will begin construction this fall on a 400,000 square foot technology campus at the former Sharon Steel Mill site in Midvale, Utah.

    The campus will eliminate the need for 11 smaller facilities, reducing occupancy costs by more than 20%, according to the release. Employees at the new campus will come from various sites across Salt Lake Valley, including the downtown headquarters.

    The project will break ground this fall, said Jennifer Smith, Zions Bancorporation chief information officer and executive vice president of technology and operations.

    The project’s location was selected for a variety of reasons, including the role it will play in reclaiming a portion of the former steel mill that was once heavily polluted. The campus will also support the habitat system through ecologically focused design and landscaping, she said.

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency highlighted the Sharon Steel site as a success story on the “environmental justice” front. The site, which was known for industrial waste containing lead and arsenic, was on the federal agency’s Superfund list; however, in 2018 it was lauded for its redevelopment and commercial potential after extensive waste cleanup efforts.

    Smith said the project will compliment the regional habitat developed near Jordan River Parkway. The location also gives Zions Bancorporation the opportunity “to be part of rebuilding what was formerly a location that had substantial environmental problems,” she said.

    Other factors like where employees live, areas of the state where leaders are recruiting talent and a proximity to public transportation also played a role in the decision.

    The campus, which will be nestled along the parkway, will utilize green space and offer outdoor recreation opportunities, along with shareable bikes, locker and shower facilities, and display art for the community.

    Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said the campus will have a “significant economic impact” on Midvale, the state and the surrounding areas. Such an investment is critical to Utah’s “ongoing growth, innovation and success” of the economy, financial services and technology sectors, according to Herbert.

    Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
    A piece of ground near the Jordan River at 7800 South and Bingham Junction Boulevard in Midvale, pictured on Wednesday, May 27, 2020, will be home to a Zion Bancorporation technology campus. The location, once the home of the Sharon Steel Mill, was declared an EPA superfund site and has since been cleaned up.

    “As Utah has gained a significant reputation for being a leader in the intersection of financial services and technology industries, this investment further validates that recognition and our unmatched business climate,” Herbert said.

    Midvale government officials echoed the governor’s sentiments.

    Mayor Robert Hale said the project signals a great “leap forward” in the use of the former Superfund site.

    He said he anticipates the project will bring an influx of money, jobs, economic growth and “bright young professionals,” to the community.

    “It’s just going to be a tremendous opportunity for local businesses and local services to supply the needs of these new employees coming in,” Hale said.

    Okland Construction and Layton Construction crews will build the campus in line with top environmental standards. It is anticipated the project will achieve a Platinum LEED certification — meaning more than 75% of the building’s electricity will come from on-site solar panels, the heating and cooling systems will be efficient, and the center will feature electric vehicle charging stations, according to the news release.

    Smith said the center will also provide space for the community to convene through the campuses’ expansive conference room space and beautiful outdoor grounds.

    The campus will also be constructed in a manner conducive to future transformations as employee work habits evolve over time.

    “We are bringing together employees that currently reside in 11 different buildings,” Smith said. “Those buildings were designed for a time when our work was vastly different than it is today. Our work today requires a high degree of collaboration, it requires us to think creatively and we do that through our interactions with one another. This space will facilitate those kind of connections.”

    Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
    A piece of ground near the Jordan River at 7800 South and Bingham Junction Boulevard in Midvale, pictured on Wednesday, May 27, 2020, will be home to a Zion Bancorporation technology campus. The location, once the home of the Sharon Steel Mill, was declared an EPA superfund site and has since been cleaned up.