Chapter #126: Moab, Utah - Potash Road, Part 2 - August 21, 2009

Intrepid Potash-Moab, LLC - Their Cane Creek Plant - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

A Place Called Potash, Utah, USA

After skirting the Moab Pile, Potash Road then flows in close proximity to the Colorado River, hugging its right bank for most of the seventeen-miles to the place called Potash. There, at pavement's end, Intrepid Potash-Moab, LLC operates its “Cane Creek Plant”. Although a rocky road continues on, Utah Route 279, the Potash Road ends there.
The fact that Kane Creek (with a “K”) enters the Colorado River upstream from the plant and on the opposite bank made us wonder if the plant was misnamed. Further research indicated that raw potash deposits are contained within a geological structure known as the “Cane Creek Anticline”, which is part of the broader Paradox Basin. Thus, the plant name reflects its geological underpinnings, not a fanciful geographical location adjacent to Kane Creek.


Watch the Video, "Potash Utah, USA"  

A pile of potash, spilled at the loading dock of Intrepid Potash's Cane Creek Plant - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
For a number of miles between Moab and Potash, the canyon accommodates both the river and two wide banks. Thick stands of tamarisk trees lined each bank, often blocking our view of the river. After its excursion through a deep road-cut and tunnel near Corona Arch, the Union Pacific Railroad’s Potash spur line joins Potash Road for the second half of the run to Potash. In the 1960’s the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad built the line to service the then-new potash mine. Reflecting its support for the mining industry, the State of Utah provided access to the mine by constructing State Route 279. Although now used mainly for recreational purposes, the Midcentury Industrial Modern facility at Potash, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)route is still the only paved access road to Potash. The rail line and the highway opened in the early 1960s, just in time for the first shipments of processed calcium carbonate, commonly known as potash.
While driving along the riverbank, we saw rock spires, buttes and many distant views. Often showing barely a ripple on its surface, the river here runs fifty or sixty feet deep in its bedrock channel. In William Faulkner’s novel, “As I Lay Dying”, Darl says, “Before us the thick dark current runs”. Before us, the thick dark Colorado River ran like a solid mass. Looking tame within its banks, an undercurrent produced its silent power. On Near the end of Potash Road, where Coney the Traffic Cone met Moabbey the Coyote, Kokopelli and the Other at http://jimmcgillis.comthe way to Potash, we had no way of knowing that the river would soon enter the dramatic Colorado River Gorge. Looking up at the escalating height of the canyon walls brought back our premonition about the Perfect Flood.  Our vision of the future included a flood so large that it spanned from one canyon wall to the other. Its immense volume swept away everything in its path, including any sign of man or road.
At one time, there were plans to continue the paved highway to the top of the high mesa, near Dead Horse Point State Park. Because of the difficult terrain along that former cattle path, Utah abandoned the route-extension in the 1970s. In the late 1970s, the longer and less arduous State Route 313 became the primary route from Moab to Dead Horse Point and Canyonlands National Park.
Rusting rail car in the Sun - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
The Cane Creek Potash plant operates on a grand scale, including sprawling settling ponds, a processing plant and loading facilities for both rail cars and trucks. As we approached the plant, its mid-century-modern industrial architecture dominated the tranquil riverside setting. More than fifty years old, the facilities still served their intended purpose. As we traveled past the plant that afternoon, we neither saw nor heard another human. With nothing moving at the area, Potash had the feel of a 1950’s ghost town.
Operated as a deep mine at its inception, an August 1963 mine explosion killed eighteen miners. With its human toll placing it in the top five U.S. mining Surplus, radioactive diesel-electric locomotives, mothballed at Potash, Utah - Click for larger Image (http://jamesmcgillis)disasters since 1940, the mine operators opted to change over to a water injection process. The subsequent use of deep water injection required conveying large amounts of scarce Colorado River water to the mines and ponds, there to evaporate in the desert sunlight. With water accomplishing all of the underground work, there are now both fewer miners and a reduced threat to their lives. Mining engineers now pump Colorado River water uphill to the mining sites, where they inject it three thousand feet down and into the Cane Creek Anticline. Once inside, the water loosens the raw calcium carbonate, creating a plastic flow, which migrates back to the surface. Once The Colorado River, near Potash, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)the minerals are at the surface, huge pipes conduct the brine to the settling ponds below. For reasons of efficiency, gravity conducts the minerals downward, in a series of steps that end at the processing plant near the riverbank.
Intrepid Potash’s predecessors created the settling ponds in the late 1970s. Terraced into anticline bench lands above the river, the settling ponds cover hundreds of acres. Large enough to show as geographical features on our Utah Atlas, the settling ponds created for us a striking blue and white oasis in the desert.  Because their location covers two sides of a bulge on the Cane Creek Anticline, the ponds are visible from many locations around the area. With the blue and white pools appearing in so many photographs, taken from so many different angles, even some Moab locals think that there are several different settling pond facilities in the area.
Sunset behind a butte, near Potash, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
Although we are not aware of any declared seismic risks within the anticline, its geological history suggests large-scale upheaval and subsidence. With that as background, common sense tells us that the diminutive and elegant earthworks at Potash might not survive even a moderate seismic event. In our mind, we pictured continued injection of water into the Cane Creek Anticline precipitating such a seismic event. If the resulting earthquake were large enough, it could liquefy or slump the earthworks at the settling ponds. If breached, highly concentrated brine could cascade down-slope toward the Colorado River.
Sandstone of the Colorado River Canyon, with the La Sal Mtns. in the background - Click for Larger Image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Apparently, there is not a centralized website that covers issues regarding the Potash entire settling pond system.  Although we did find individual pages that indicated the size and depth of some ponds, there was no way for us to understand the overall size and scope of those operations. The scant documentation provided by State of Utah web pages classifies individual pools as “low risk”. Since there is no unified reporting system regarding settling pond issues, we wondered if there have been any recent inspections of the earthworks at Potash. If not, how can mine operators and the state declare that individual parts of the system are "low risk"?
With the decades-long drama taking place at the the Moab Pile, only a few miles One of the potash settling ponds, with a brisk wind, near sundown - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)upstream, identification and remediation of other potential threats to the Colorado River have taken a back seat. It would be a shame to save the Colorado River from nuclear peril, only to witness an accident at Potash. Collapse of the settling pond system could pollute the river with untold amounts of potash, which is primarily used as crop fertilizer. Although placing poor second to the danger of radiation entering the Lower Colorado Basin, surely a large dose of industrial strength fertilizer would not help water quality.
According to legal documents available on the internet, Intrepid Potash uses both temporary and permanent pipelines to conduct potash brine from their mining sites to the settling ponds. A second set of pipes conducts the chemicals from the ponds to the plant for processing. During our own drive Settling ponds at Potash, above the Colorado River - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)past the settling ponds, we saw evidence that raw potash slurry had recently cascaded down a streambed and into the ponds. Although little was growing along that streambed prior to its flooding, the heavy coating of crystalized brine will prevent new plant growth there any time soon.
At the Moab Confluence Festival in October 2008, author and naturalist Craig Childs signed for us a copy of his classic book, "The Desert Cries".  The subtitle of Craig's book is, "A Season of Flash Floods in a Dry Land". On the title page of our copy, Craig wrote, "Put your hand on the ground.  Feel for the flood. It is coming, always".
A once natural creekbed, fouled in July 2009 by calcium carbonate overflow - Click for detailed image (http://jamesmcgillis.com 
In December 2008, three million gallons of toxic fly ash and water cascaded downstream from a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power plant. Once its retention pond failed, there was no way to save the valley below. A river of toxic chemical-sludge obliterated the local landscape, ruining it forever as a place to live. If nothing else, the senseless destruction at the TVA facility tells us that old, earth-dam retention ponds like the ones at Potash require periodic, independent inspection and public disclosure of their current risk. 
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