The Almost News Conference
The excitement was building. Plans were in motion for a news conference at the Utah Capitol’s prestigious Gold Room. The company, Lake Restoration Solutions (LRS), believed they had secured a massive federal loan through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) program. The governor’s office was ready to make a big announcement. But just days before the scheduled event, everything came crashing down. Emails and records revealed that LRS was never invited to apply for federal funding in the first place. The news conference was promptly canceled, exposing the influence this project had within state government.
The Illusion of Approval
In an attempt to secure funding for their ambitious $6 billion project, LRS first applied for a $385 million low-interest loan in 2020. They were unsuccessful. Undeterred, they tried again in 2021, this time seeking $893 million. However, as the project faced criticism from scientists and concerns about its impact on Utah Lake’s ecosystem, the reality of securing federal funds became uncertain. Despite this, LRS lobbyist Steve Styler began coordinating with the governor’s office for a news conference on November 21, 2021. The plan was for Governor Spencer Cox to unveil a public-private partnership between LRS and the state, with LRS CEO Ryan Benson declaring that the EPA had selected them for the WIFIA loan program. The problem? LRS was never invited to formally apply for the loan.
Behind the Scenes
As rumors circulated about LRS’s supposed approval for the loan, the truth began to unravel. Erica Gaddis, then the director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, reached out to the EPA for confirmation. It was then revealed that LRS was actually on the waitlist and had not received any financing. The news conference with the governor was called off, and LRS never received the federal assistance they had hoped for.
LRS eventually dissolved and declared bankruptcy earlier this year, without ever receiving any federal assistance. Questions arose about the departure of Erica Gaddis from the Division of Water Quality. Not long after she left, a public records request was filed seeking Gaddis’s communication with the EPA and scientists critical of the LRS project. Despite concerns about potential influence, it was determined that Gaddis did not impact the funding opportunity with the EPA or the WIFIA program. The plot thickens as it becomes unclear who exactly was behind the public records request.
A Glimpse Behind the Curtain
As the controversy unfolded, it became apparent that LRS had garnered a significant amount of support, including a $10 million loan guarantee approved by the Legislature. The lack of evidence supporting the project’s feasibility raises questions about how LRS was able to build such substantial state support. Professor Ben Abbott from Brigham Young University, a vocal critic of the project, even faced a defamation lawsuit from LRS. Fortunately, the lawsuit was dismissed, and Abbott’s case against LRS continued.
A Clearer Picture Emerges
As LRS filed for bankruptcy, it was revealed that a substantial amount of money had been transferred to Big Game Forever, a nonprofit founded by LRS CEO Ryan Benson. Coincidentally, the Legislature had provided significant funding to this organization over the years. This revelation, coupled with a history of mismanaged funds, adds another layer to the story of LRS and its questionable dealings.
In the end, the almost news conference revealed the influence and intricacies of the LRS project within Utah’s state government. As the dust settles, it is clear that not everything is as it seems in the world of lake dredging and artificial island creation.