TAYLORSVILLE — Khosrow Semnani can't escape his faith.
On a recent Friday that unshakable belief compels Semnani to his mosque just west of Salt Lake City, where neatly clustered business parks give way to open pasture and grazing horses. The mosque's parking lot, sprinkled with a dozen or so maroon-and-white taxis, is full. So Semnani parks his black SUV on an unpaved, adjacent lot.
Upon entering the mosque, Semnani removes his polished shoes and proceeds to a large room with vaulted ceilings three stories high. The air smells like a department-store perfume counter, the scents indistinguishably intermingled — the result of the Muslim practice of applying fragrance while worshipping that dates back to the prophet Mohammed's predilection for perfumes.
More than a hundred men and boys sit cross-legged on the carpet; all women are out of sight, comfortably ensconced on a second-story balcony. A wide swath of skin tones and facial features bespeaks Middle Eastern, African and Asian ancestry.
Semnani is the only one in this expansive room wearing a white shirt and tie. Indeed, a significant percentage of these men are working-class immigrants — people who hold down jobs like driving taxis.
After the prayer service, Imam Muhammed of the Islamic Society of Great Salt Lake thoughtfully quantifies the sizable role Semnani unofficially fills for Utah's Muslim community. To illustrate the dynamic, Muhammed recalls a recent conference at BYU where Semnani presented a paper about his experience of being a Muslim in America. Near the end of his discourse, Semnani paused and introduced the imam to the students and professors in attendance — an act that opened a dialogue that otherwise wouldn't have happened between Muhammed and the mostly white, Mormon audience.
"Many of the BYU students wanted to meet an imam, wanted to discuss, wanted to dialogue, wanted clarification on matters," Muhammed recalls. "The professors wanted to participate in the dialogue and create more open communication. With one small act, Semnani had shaped my thinking regarding BYU, BYU's thinking to a certain extent regarding me, and by opening up that communication line we are able to clarify misconceptions."
Semnani, the Utah millionaire most famous for bringing massive amounts of the federal government's radioactive waste to Utah, has now embarked on a new mission that is very much fueled by faith. After more than a decade in the public spotlight, Semnani is shifting his focus from capitalism to philanthropy, funneling his faith in God and humanity into ambitious projects like providing healthcare to the poor.
An Iranian immigrant who came to Utah in 1969 with $47 in his pocket, Semnani (pronounced sem-nah-NEE) helped pay his way through Westminster College with a part-time job as a janitor. Eventually he founded Envirocare (now EnergySolutions) in 1988 and shortly thereafter the company began accepting low-level radioactive waste for treatment and disposal in above ground, reinforced buildings with three-foot-thick concrete walls.
The facility still sits on a 540-acre property in the isolated Tooele County desert west of Salt Lake City. Semnani originally bought the land for $339,000 and, thanks in part to lucrative contracts from the U.S. Department of Energy, eventually built the company up to produce revenues that were estimated to exceed $100 million annually. As of 2005, Envirocare accepted 93 percent of the Class A low level radioactive waste that the federal government farmed out to non-government facilities.
As the CEO of Envirocare, Semnani was once a household name in the Utah media. In 2002 he fought hard to defeat the Radioactive Waste Initiative in a statewide election. Also known as Initiative 1, the ballot measure would've increased the state tax on Class A radioactive waste disposal from 35 cents per cubic foot to nearly $150 for every cubic foot.
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