Ride the D&RGW Narrow Gauge Rails with Twentieth Century Railroading Legend, Engineer Steve Connor
In 1965, my father, Dr. Loron N. McGillis and I visited Durango, Colorado. There we rode on the old Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RGW) to Silverton and back. No longer a freight or ore hauler of any distinction, the narrow gauge steam trains were quaint, yet powerful. During our stopover at Silverton, my father and I photographed the waiting train and visited with its engineer.
In December 2013, while writing about our 1965 excursion, I included an image of our engineer in one of my articles. In the original photo caption, I referred to him as “our unnamed engineer”. When I published his picture, I thought, “Someone must surely know who this man is and will contact me with his name”.
In October 2014, I received an email from Mr. Paul Connor, who is the grandson of our 1965 locomotive engineer, Mr. Steve Connor. Over the course of several emails, I learned more about the Connor name in D&RGW history.
As Paul wrote to me, “I am Steve Connor’s oldest grandson. My father, George Connor worked as a brakeman/conductor for the D&RGW. I spent the first twenty-one years of my career working for the D&RGW and Southern Pacific Railroad. After hiring out at Durango in 1974, I began there as a mechanical laborer/coach cleaner. In 1976, I started as fireman at Durango, and later worked out of Pueblo, Minturn, Alamosa and Grand Junction as a locomotive engineer/fireman. In 1995 I was promoted to Road Foreman of Engines and have held the same job since. After the Union Pacific merger with Southern Pacific, my title became Manager of Operating Practices, working out of Grand Junction.
All told, the Connor family currently has somewhere around one hundred and twenty years of railroading history in western Colorado. I say this because I am not certain of my great grandfather, Richard Connor's hire date. We think he started in the 1800's when the tracks were being laid into Durango.
The youngest of seven siblings, for many years of his career Richard Connor was the section foreman at Hermosa. His oldest brother, Jim, retired as a locomotive engineer at Durango. His brother John was a fireman and was killed in a train wreck in the Animas Canyon in 1921.”
Regarding his grandfather, Paul Connor wrote, “Steve Connor was born in the section house at Hermosa, just north of Durango to Richard and Julia Connor. He hired out around 1923 and retired in 1971 with forty-eight years, but was furloughed for many years during the Great Depression. At times, when they were short of manpower, he made trips on the Rio Grande Southern. As the narrow gauge dried up, he would work at Durango in the summers and work out of Alamosa in the winters. The Alamosa/Durango seniority rosters were combined during those years. I always joked that by the time he was number one in seniority, there would be only one job left on the narrow gauge.
As you might expect, there are a lot of photographs of Steve Connor around but few that are this good. Your father really captured a great deal of his personality and a nice moment in time for me.”
Regarding Steve Connor’s experience, Paul wrote, “The locomotive 478 was my grandfather's favorite of the three used on the Silverton Branch in those years. I am not sure why, but if I had to guess it is because it rode the best, the whistle was not as shrill, and it was then equipped with power reverse (long since removed). Steam engines possess personality in the way they fire, steam, and run. For lack of a better word, I would call them quirks. In the years I worked there, I had no particular favorite of the three. As a fireman or engineer you had to work around each of their personalities.”
Each October 15 for the past three years, I have closed the season while staying at the United Campgrounds of Durango RV Park. In cooperation with the campground, I operate a live webcam that features the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. If a webcam viewer is lucky, they may see the steam train running either north or south through the RV Park.
By October, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad runs only one round-trip train to Silverton each day. During the fall season, the railroad uses mostly their larger 480 Series or K-36 locomotives, so that they can operate a longer single train. By October, it is rare to see a smaller 470 Series or K-28 locomotive, with its lesser tractive power.
Still, if you visit Durango during the summer season, you might have the opportunity to see or ride behind locomotive 478, which was the favorite of twentieth century railroading legend and D&RGW Engineer, the late Steve Connor (d.1974).
at 01:16 PM |
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Old Grand County Council Drives Moab & Greater Canyonlands Over an Environmental Cliff
In mid-October 2014, I had the pleasure of visiting Moab, Utah once again. While in Moab, I planned to visit some of my favorite haunts, see old friends and perhaps meet some new ones. I also planned to document some of the changes that are rapidly overtaking Grand County and Greater Canyonlands.
As some readers will recall, in the latter days of the second George W. Bush administration, there was an all-out push to lease every square inch of public lands for oil, gas and mineral extraction. The effort was so slipshod that lands near the Moab Golf Club and some directly over the well fields that supply Moab with its precious culinary water were included in the original auction proposals.
Through the good work of many in the community and with a change in presidential administrations, the most egregious examples of mineral exploitation were removed from the final auction process. Still, the opening of Grand County to mineral exploitation soon went into full swing. Grand plans like the Utah Recreational Land Exchange of 2009 (URLEA) expanded the template for oil and gas exploration in Grand County. The federal government, through its Bureau of Land Management, divided Grand County into two categories. Some public lands were to be protected, but the majority was up for grabs as oil and gas fields.
Throughout this process, the Grand County Council took every opportunity it could to tell the federal government to keep out of what the council considered to be local issues. In October 2014, the council voted six to one to join six other Utah counties (Emery, Duchesne, Uintah, Daggett, Carbon and San Juan) in what they call the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition (SCIC). Infrastructure, in this case will include roads, pipelines and a rail network designed to accelerate oil, gas and mineral extraction from the member counties.
To add insult to the injury of the mineral extraction projects that the SCIC supports, the group plans to divert millions of dollars from “community impact funds" to pursue their goals. Rather than helping heal the land and the health of those affected by unbridled extraction of chemicals and hydrocarbons, the coalition plans to use the community impact funds to help build haul-roads, pipeline access and rail facilities. All of their efforts will now go full speed ahead to scrape, drill, pump and haul as much raw hydrocarbon as they can from the affected lands.
When asked why the Grand County Council could not wait until after the November 2014 election to join the SCIC or to put the matter to a public vote, council member Lynn Jackson retorted, "The people voted when the seven of us were elected up here". Despite the overwhelming number of written protests and the overwhelming number of citizens voicing their opposition at the final Grand County Council meeting on the subject, the Gang of Six extractionist boosters on the council voted to join the anti-environmental cabal of counties. Jackson was subsequently elected as Grand County's representative to the SCIC.
In the past, I have written about the “sense of entitlement” that many residents of Southeastern Utah feel about the public lands in the area. Some feel entitled to grow alfalfa with water diverted from Ken’s Lake (Puddle). Others feel it is acceptable to sell Moab’s culinary water to gas well drillers at bargain prices. Still others feel it is their right to search and remove artifacts of ancient cultures that once lived in the area. For many residents of the area, the predominant feeling seems to be, “This is our land and we can do whatever we want with it”.
In the past several years, arches, spires and even dinosaur tracks have crumbled, disappeared or been stolen by local residents. Still, there has never been a study completed to determine the health or even the size of the aquifer that supports all human and other life in the Spanish Valley and Moab. To my knowledge, no one has ever studied the potential seismic effects of oil, gas, potash or tar sands exploration and extraction in Greater Canyonlands. Through ignorance, greed or willful disregard for the greater good, will the “entitled few” spoil the wonders that took nature eons to create?
On Tuesday, November 4, 2014, the registered voters of Grand County have a choice between continuing to stack the Grand County Council with extractionist sympathizers or to go in a new direction and bring environmental sanity back to that elected body. Soon enough, we shall see the results.
Author's Note: November 6, 2014 - Moab Times-Independent - "Grand County voters buck national trend by electing moderates, progressives to county council". By sizeable margins, Jaylyn Hawks, Mary Mullen McGann and Chris Baird defeated their more conservative-leaning opponents in an election in which 74.15 percent of active Grand County voters cast ballots.
at 10:31 PM |
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BLM/SITLA - Subterfuge and Obfuscation Exposed in Parcel-32 Land Exchange
Early in his first term, President Obama signed into law the Utah Recreational Land Exchange Act (URLEA) of 2009. Its full title was, “To direct the exchange of certain land in Grand, San Juan, and Uintah Counties, Utah, and for other purposes.” At that time, few people realized that the phrase, “and for other purposes” would subvert the publicly avowed intention of that bill.
See a U.S. Army Black Ops visit to Parcel 32, Moab, Utah
If you read the official Library of Congress Summary of the enabling legislation, its wording is straightforward. It authorizes an exchange of federal lands for state owned lands within certain Utah Counties: 8/5/2009 - Public Law [Summary].
As the official summary states, the state and federal parcels exchanged were to be of equal value. Oddly, there is no mention of “recreational lands” in the official summary. Later, on an official web page, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) touted the supposed “conservation and recreation value” of the URLEA. On that web page, BLM stated the following: “The BLM will acquire 58-parcels with high conservation and recreation value, totaling 25,034 acres, primarily in Grand County. These parcels will expand the BLM backcountry with world class recreation sites like Corona Arch and Morning Glory Arch. This exchange will improve the quantity and quality of recreational experiences for visitors to public lands and waters managed by the BLM. The State will acquire 34-parcels with high mineral development potential, totaling 35,516 acres, primarily in Uintah County. The state expects development of these high potential parcels to boost public school funding across Utah”.
On that BLM/URLEA web page, conversion of Exchange Parcel 32 to “light industrial use in future” received no mention. As URLEA became law in May 2014, the fate of those 352-acres was in direct contradiction to BLM’s “story line” about saving arches and promoting recreation within Grand County. Instead, prime open land in Grand County transferred to the State of Utah via its School and Institutional Lands Trust Administration (SITLA). At just over $2000 per acre, SITLA received industrial land at cow pasture prices.
In its “Protest Dismissed” document, BLM dismissed my protest of Parcel 32 valuation as “grazing land”. To quote that document, it stated, “The EA disclosed the current and future anticipated use of Federal Lands by SITLA. The uses identified for (Parcel 32) include: Current/grazing and wildlife habitat; Future/continued grazing use for intermediate term; possible light industrial use in future.” Without citing any corroborating appraisal documents, BLM stated that their process took "future potential development into account". If BLM appraised the industrial future of Parcel 32 against any comparable parcels in Grand County, where are those parcels located? According to my recent searches, there are no undeveloped industrial parcels for sale in Grand County, let alone a 352-acre parcel intertwined with its regional airport.
In its “Protest Dismissed” document, BLM writes that, “Environmental Assessment No. DOI-BLM-UT-9100-2013-001-EA (EA), completed in March 2013 (emphasis mine) in support of the exchange action, disclosed mineral leasing and development as the projected (sic) on many of the parcels the SITLA would acquire. The “EA”, made available for public review and comment via BLM’s Electronic Bulletin Board (EBB) in April 2013, addressed the potential impacts to resources associated with mineral development, and did not disclose any significant impacts associated with the proposed exchange.”
On Page 8 of BLM’s "Decision Record Signed", in "Section B. Land Use Conformance", it specifically states that "parcel 32 (Moab) located in the Labyrinth Rims/Gemini Bridges SRMA" was "identified for retention In Federal ownership in (its) respective RMP". Later in the same paragraph, BLM employs obfuscatory 'double-speak', saying that Parcel 32 and two other parcels were included in the exchange because, "BLM determined that a planning amendment was unnecessary as the URLEA explicitly directs the BLM to exchange certain Federal lands, provided the exchange meets certain conditions". In that sentence we learn that BLM was required to meet certain explicit conditions for a unilateral conversion of Parcel 32 from its current protected status as federal grazing land and antelope habitat to future light industrial use. Nowhere else in the Decision Record Signed, the Environmental Assessment or the Exchange Agreement do we learn why "URLEA explicitly directs the BLM" to include Parcel 32 in the exchange or which of "certain conditions" were met. Whenever BLM uses the word "certain" twice in one sentence, we should be told what those certainties are.
The BLM EBB web page referenced in BLM’s “Protest Dismissed” document contains several conflicting data points. Referencing BLM’s reasons for denying my protest one at a time, here are the facts:
1. Contrary to BLM’s dismissal, the “EA” was not “completed in March 2013”. In fact, the “public review/commentary period” did not start until 4/22/13. In fact, the EBB web page states; “4/01/2013: Environmental Assessment Being Prepared [BLM]”. Elsewhere on the same page, it states; “12/30/2013: EA Completed [BLM]”.
2. Farther on in its dismissal, BLM claims that the “EA”, as posted on the BLM EBB in April 2013; “addressed the potential impacts to resources associated with mineral (emphasis mine) development”. Concluding, the "EA" “did not disclose any significant impacts associated with the proposed exchange”.
3. The BLM document titled "Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI)" was unavailable to the public in April 2013 and was not published until February 2014. In its “Protest Dismissed” document, BLM indicates that full disclosure of all relevant documents to my protest were completed and published not later than April 2013. Clearly, with the February 2014 publication of the FONSI, such is not the case.
4. As referenced on the BLM EBB web page, the much vaunted “EA” was not completed until; “12/30/2013: EA Completed [BLM]”. Nine months prior to the publication of the “EA”, did BLM already know that it would “not disclose any significant impacts associated with the proposed exchange”? If the reader click’s the link to the final “EA” document at the bottom of the BLM EBB web page, the resulting Environmental Assessment is dated September 2013.
5. The crux of the issue is; when, where and in what form was the Environmental Assessment released to the public? Was it in April 2013, as BLM suggests in its “Protest Dismissed” document”? Was it in September 2013, as the published “final EA document” indicates? Or was it completed on December 30, 2013, as the Electronic Bulletin Board page indicates? Any way you look at it, the content and publication date(s) of the Environmental Assessment represent a moving target.
In the conclusion of its “Protest Dismissed” document, BLM states, “A protestor bears the burden of establishing that the BLM premised a decision on a clear error of law, error of material fact, or failure to consider a substantial environmental question of material significance. The protestor has not met this burden in this instance”.
Although I cannot claim that BLM has committed a “clear error of law”, its inaccuracy and the conflicting publication dates associated with the “EA” represent a multifarious “error of material fact”.
Other factual errors include limiting the scope of BLM’s environmental assessment to “the potential impacts to resources associated with mineral development”. In so doing, I believe that BLM discounted the future industrialization value of Parcel 32. Nowhere else in Grand County is there a major parcel self-certified for future industrial use. If unilaterally converting 352-acres of open land to “future light industrial use” at Canyonlands Field does not qualify as having potential environmental impact, what does?
Do not forget the bargain price of just over $2000 per acre that SITLA exchanged for unique and now pre-sanctioned industrial land. As of this writing, the Grand County Council plans to use the final URLEA “Exchange Agreement” as the basis for future resource and land use planning. As such, BLM’s designation of “future light industrial use” on Parcel 32 may well create its own self-fulfilling prophecy.
By law, the URLEA was to be an “exchange of equal value”. Only time will tell what profit SITLA will make from the sale of Parcel 32. My guess is that it will be many multiples of the $780,000 value that they exchanged. As SITLA plans for the sale of Parcel 32 into the private sector, I hope that it will be more transparent with its procedures than BLM was during the URLEA process.
As for the Grand County Council, its current makeup is stacked in favor of every possible form of mineral and industrial development. In May 2014, when the Exchange Agreement became federal law, the Grand County Council found its perfect foil. In July 2014, the council refused to disavow a planned “Hydrocarbon Highway” through the ancient and sacred sites at Sego Canyon. In its quest to pave Sego Canyon and to rezone Parcel 32 from “grazing” to “light industrial”, the Grand County Council now cites “federal law” as its legal precedent.
When SITLA does sell Parcel 32, I expect a bidding war between energy companies and Grand County developers. In the over hyped legal agreement that BLM and SITLA called a “Recreational Land Exchange”, the phrase “and for other purposes” in that law will soon create a New Industrial Desert on Parcel 32 at Canyonlands Field near Moab, Utah. As the old saying goes, you cannot judge a book by its cover. In the case of the Utah Recreational and Exchange Act of 2009 (URLEA), the exchange of Parcel 32 was in direct contradiction to the name and spirit, if not the letter of that law. If BLM and SITLA wish to maintain any claim to being stewards of the land, both must disavow such subterfuge in the future.
at 05:47 PM |
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Moab UMTRA Removal and Remediation Job May Be Larger Than Previously Thought
Since May 2009, I have published eight articles regarding the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project (UMTRA). In 2005, radioactive and chemical laden soil from the former Atlas Minerals Corp. uranium mill towered ninety-feet high along the Colorado River at Moab. At that time, DOE announced that 11.9 million tons of radioactive tailings would move thirty miles to a secure burial site near Crescent Junction, Utah.
See Progress Removing Nuclear & Chemical Waste at the Moab Pile
In February 2014, DOE announced that contractors had removed and transported 6.5 million tons, or forty-one percent of the total tailings pile. If the 6.5 million tons removed equals forty-one percent of the tailings, then somehow the Moab Pile had expanded from 11.9 million to 16.2 million tons. With no new material added, and 6.5 million tons removed, the original size of the Moab Pile had somehow expanded by thirty-six percent.
Moab is a magical place, but since no one is creating new dirt, the growth of 4.3 million tons at the tailings pile is a Moab mystery. With such vagaries appearing in official DOE documents, there should be a better accounting of how much material there is yet to remove. At current rates of transport, the DOE expects a complete the removal of contaminated material by about 2025. If we take projected annual shutdowns of the federal government into account, the project timeline stretches out to Friday April 13, 2029.
Prior to the completion of its charter, Moab UMTRA expects to excavate and remove all contaminated material from the site. The problem with that scenario is that no one knows how deep or wide the plume of contaminated water and saturated soil actually is. If the weight of contaminated tailings grew by 4.3 million tons in the first nine years of the project, what is to keep it from growing an equal amount in the next nine years?
If we look at the underlying hydrology, there are two major influences on water flow and ground saturation at the UMTRA site. First is the once-mighty Colorado River. As the river swings through an arc at Moab Canyon, the tailings pile lies on the outside of that bend. During flood years, such as 2011 and to a lesser degree 2014, hydrological pressure pushes Colorado River water into the lower reaches of the Moab Pile. At the same time, the Moab Wash brings both surface flow and underground percolation downstream from the sand-filled canyon near the main entrance at Arches National Park.
In an ideal world, the hydrological pressure from the Colorado River would cancel out the subterranean flow from the Moab Wash watershed. In the real world, a well field located between the tailing pile and the river attempts to extract and purify groundwater before it enters the Colorado River. As of February 2014, the wells have extracted four hundred tons of ammonia and almost two tons of radioactive uranium. During low water periods, technicians inject fresh water into the wells in an attempt to maintain stasis between the two competing flows.
If the contaminated water and soil at the Moab Pile run deeper than current optimistic estimates, adding an additional 4.3 million tons to the excavation project is possible. If that turns out to be true, then the project is currently only one third complete, not the forty-one percent touted in recent DOE announcements. If scouring the Moab Wash watershed requires digging a huge hole where the waste tailings now stand, the entire character of the project might change.
Relying on the optimistic DOE projections, Moab and Grand County have created what they call a Community Vision Plan for the site. The Community Vision Plan, as currently formulated, includes a railroad station, transit center, bicycle and walking trails, a community park, federal offices, an ice rink, an event center and undetermined commercial uses.
Although the UMTRA site comprises 474 acres, 171 of those acres are in the floodplain. The contaminated tailings currently take up 104 acres. Highway and other easements remove 102 acres from potential development, as do twenty-nine additional acres of steep slopes. If the 104 acre Moab Pile becomes the new Moab Pit, that would leave 65 acres of developable land.
Despite local government resolutions to the contrary, the DOE is not obligated to cede even one acre of the UMTRA site to Grand County. With the uncertainties over long-term federal funding, the amount of remediation required and the tendency for such programs to balloon in both size and cost, alternatives to the “Community Myopia Plan” seem prudent.
As of 2014, we have at least eleven or more years until site remediation is completed. Even at that, there may be a 104-acre pit where the Moab Pile now stands. Assuming that 4.3 million tons of clean fill-dirt does not become available at the site, planners for the DOE, Moab and Grand County should include the potential for a new Moab Pit in their visionary plans.
From the beginning of the UMTRA project, it was my contention that flood protection at the site should take precedence over removal of contaminated material. Ignoring my pleas and the paleoflood studies that substantiated them, DOE continued full speed ahead with their waste removal project. In the spring of 2011, DOE suffered public embarrassment when Colorado River floodwater penetrated part of the Moab Pile. After the 2011 flood, DOE took measures to lessen the potential for flooding at the site. Today, it still relies on simple pumping of groundwater through easily flooded wells to keep ammonia and uranium laden waste out of the Colorado River.
Upon final removal of the waste tailings, DOE has no announced plans for protecting the UMTRA site. Protection for the new Moab Pit and the proposed public amenities are absent from the clouded Visionary Plan, as well. Rather than rushing headlong to completion of waste removal, the DOE should shift its focus to the long-term protection and potential uses of this unique recreational resource.
If left to the devices of nature, the new Moab Pit might fill itself with a mixture of contaminated groundwater and floodwater from the river. In order to prevent such an ecological disaster, DOE should create a cofferdam along the Colorado River. If properly constructed, the new cofferdam could hold back the river and allow complete removal of contaminated materials from behind the dam.
If architects of the cofferdam think ahead, they could design a floodgate into the structure. In 2029 or beyond, DOE could then transfer the UMTRA site to Grand County. Although I will be over eighty years old at the time, when the Moab Pit becomes the new 104-acre Grand County Marina, I hope to attend the ribbon cutting ceremony.
Previous Moab Pile articles, in chronological order, or see them all at MoabPile.com:
2009 - A Happy Ending for the Moab Pile?
2009 - Moab, Utah - The Potash Road
2011 - Moab Pile - Here Comes the Flood
2011 - Moab Pile - The Mill Tailings Train
2011 - Moab Pile - Countdown to Disaster
2011 - Nuclear Dust Storm Hits Moab, UT
2011 - Toxic Purple Dust Covers Moab, UT
2013 - The True Cost of Mineral Extraction
at 11:39 AM |
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