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.
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.
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
Each Spring, I Hear The Call - And Then It's Moab Time
In May 2014, I departed Mesquite, Nevada, heading for Moab, Utah, 375 miles to the northeast. Normally, it is an easy trip north on Interstate I-15 and then East on I-70. At Crescent Junction, I would hit U.S. 191, and then head south toward Moab. According to Google Maps, the highway trip should take five hours and thirty minutes. Since I was pulling our Springdale travel trailer, I added two hours to the estimate.
Near its start at Cove Fort, Utah, I-70 traverses parts of both the Fish Lake National Forest and the Manti La Sal National Forest. Along that route, the mountain passes exceed 7,250 feet elevation. After transiting through both national forests, I-70 presents itself as a slow-motion rollercoaster ride. The culmination is a twisting descent down the east side of the San Rafael Swell.
Combined, my Nissan Titan truck and its trailer weigh 11,000 pounds. With a twenty percent horsepower-loss at 7,250 feet, the 5.6 liter V-8 in my pickup was averaging just over six miles per gallon. The only way to go faster was to downshift into second gear while ascending. At that throttle setting, the engine runs at over 5,000 RPM, increasing both gasoline consumption and engine wear.
The only sensible solution was to slow down and not push my rig so hard. In doing so, I finessed the gears, rather than the power to keep my average speed above fifty-five miles per hour. Another consideration was the hundred-mile distance to the next service station, in Green River, Utah. In case of emergency, I carry several gallons of gasoline in an approved container. I rarely have to use my reserve fuel, but it offers peace of mind when I visit remote locations.
Once I reached Crescent Junction, I had only thirty-three miles to go on U.S. Highway 191 South. In Moab, my final destination was the Moab Rim Campark, at the south end of town. Before I reached Moab, I had a brief side trip to take. On a railroad siding near the turnoff to Utah Highway 313, I hoped to locate an old friend. Like an old-time prospector’s affection for his burro, I had become fond of the Moab Burro.
Although it is not an animal, the Moab Burro is a fascinating example of twentieth century railroad construction equipment. Built by the Cullen Friestadt Company, the Moab Burro is a self-propelled railroad crane capable of pulling other rail cars, lifting 12,500 pounds and swiveling on its turret 360 degrees. On my previous visit, the Moab Burro lay idle and alone on a railroad siding of the Union Pacific Railroad Potash Branch Line. In fact, the crane and its flatcar-tender had been on that siding for so long, Google Maps had snapped its picture from space.
That day, I was not so lucky. As I approached Seven Mile, I could see that both the Potash Branch Line and its siding lay deserted. Since the Moab Burro is a functioning piece of railroad maintenance-of-way equipment, Union Pacific Burro Crane No. BC-47 was probably elsewhere in the High Southwest. My hope of photographing Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone with the Moab Burro were dashed. Instead, I had to settle for pictures of my unlikely superheroes sitting on the empty track at Seven Mile.
If any reader spots the Moab Burro elsewhere on the Union Pacific network, please take a photo and send it to me via email. If received here, I will then post any newly found images of Union Pacific BC-47, also known as the Moab Burro.
After leaving Seven Mile, I headed straight for Moab. While crossing the Colorado River, I noted that it was flowing higher than it had in the past few years. If the increased flow originated in a heavy snow pack on the Western Slope of the Colorado Rockies, that could be a good sign for Colorado River health. If the flow came from a rapid snowmelt upstream, it might be just a “flash in the pan”, soon to subside. As it turned out, 2014 would be a good water flow year in the Upper Colorado River Basin.
According to the USGS interactive website, on May 15, 2014, the Colorado River was flowing at about 10,000 cubic feet per minute (CFM) at Moab. By June 3, the river peaked at about 37,500 CFM, which was more than twice the sixty-three year average. Downstream, Lake Powell reached its 2014 low of 3574' elevation around April 15. By July 10, 2014, the lake was peaking at 3,609' elevation. That rise of thirty-five feet put the lake level ten feet higher than on the same date in 2013.
A six foot rise might not sound like much, but with Lake Powell's immense surface area, that represents almost an eight percent gain in water volume. As of July 10, 2014, the Lake Powell watershed had mixed statistics. The snow-pack was at forty-seven percent of normal and the total precipitation was at ninety-six percent of normal. A vigorous Monsoon in early July had added greatly to the total precipitation. Still, the lower mass of the snow-pack suggested lower flows for the remainder of the year.
Soon after passing over the Colorado River, I saw a rare sight in Moab. As I waited at the Highway 128 stoplight, four identical 1960’s Shelby Cobra 289 sports cars pulled on to U.S. 191. From my vantage point, I could not see if the Cobras were original or if they were among the ubiquitous replicas manufactured over the past forty years. After snapping a picture of each Cobra, I followed them toward Moab. Soon, they pulled off for an early dinner at the venerable Sunset Grill. I wondered how the stiff suspension of each Cobra would fare on the long, washboard driveway that leads up to the restaurant.
Soon, I arrived at the Moab Rim Campark, where I stay when in Moab. Owners Jim and Sue Farrell always offer old-fashioned Moab hospitality to all who stay there. As I pulled in to the RV Park, I noticed a young couple standing at the rear of their rental RV. Emblazoned across the stern of their RV was a high definition image of Yosemite Valley. With their permission, I took several photos of the couple and the Sierra Nevada scene. As I shot the photos, I zoomed-out to show that they were in Moab, not in Yosemite. To see the full scene, please click on their image.
Reflecting now on that meeting, I remembered that the young woman had looked up toward me and into the sun. She said, “I can’t see, so tell me when to smile”. Later, after examining the photos, I realized that the woman was blind. In my experience, blind people often see more of our universe than many sighted people can. I only wish I could have explained to her the double meaning created by their standing in front of the Sierra Nevada Range and Moab’s La Sal Range, all at the same time.
For years, I have witnessed and studied various dimensional anomalies in and around Moab. To witness a young blind woman standing in two places simultaneously was an event on par with witnessing a plasma flow etched across the morning sky in Moab. Smiling about my good fortune to witness such a sight that day, I realized that as of that moment, I was on Moab Time.
Returning from Yosemite to the Moab of my contemporaneous three-dimensional time-space reality (3DTSR), I looked beyond the young couple to the snowfields of the La Sal Range. Fresh snow, which fell only a day before my May 15 arrival dusted the lower slopes of the great mountain range. The brilliance of white snow against the blue sky was spectacular. Looking at my photos later on, I realized that one shot captured an image of a large bird of prey, frozen in time within that infinite sky.
My first trip to Moab was in the summer of 1965. After leaving there, I assumed that it was a magical place, which I would never see again. Decades later, I read about the Moab Pile and its nuclear threat to life along the Colorado River. Upon returning to Moab in the early 2000’s, all of the magic and many new threats to the environment came to me. With Big Oil, Big Gas, Big Potash and Big Tar Sands all ganging up on Moab and Grand County, the soul of that magical place might easily be lost.
During my current visit, I hoped to join others and sway Moab toward a more positive outcome.