Monday, July 20, 2009

Return to the Overpass to Nowhere

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They can tell you what to do
But they'll make a fool of you
And it's all right, baby, it's all right
We're on a road to nowhere...
- Talking Heads

When I moved to Grand Junction in 1995, I was initially puzzled by the presence of a large highway overpass along Highway 50, south of Whitewater. The road that the overpass led to appeared to go nowhere; no big subdivision, industrial area or commercial complex that would explain its presence in the middle of the 'stinking desert' between GJ and Delta.

Only later would it be explained to me that the overpass was for the thousands of truckloads of Uranium mill tailings being taken to the Cheney Disposal Cell, on the other side of that hill from the highway.

As it happens, most of the tailings have been removed to the site, and the overpass was taken down after Highway 50 through Whitewater was widened to 2 lanes in each direction.

With the recent announcement that the U.S. Department of Energy is considering moving upwards of 10,000 tons of elemental Mercury to the Cheney Cell, there's been a considerable amount of community concern expressed in advance of a public meeting tomorrow evening at Two Rivers Convention Center. This is not unexpected.

The Sentinel's Gary Harmon deftly characterized the decision-making process around where the Mercury will go as being primarily political in nature. However, Gary did not go deep enough into his analysis of the issue. He left out the reasons this is all being done in the first place, along with the political legerdemain of a certain senator from Tennessee to assure that his state's nuclear waste facilities would be exempted from consideration.

For that and other information, local geologist and blogger Ralph D'Andrea did some excellent and comprehensive research and reporting on the issue. If you're interested about this issue, this is probably the best information you'll find about it locally.

As other local politicians and leaders weighed in almost uniformly against the issue, several former elected and appointed county officials also lent a historical perspective. Former Commissioner and current Free Press columnist Jim Spehar wrote on a local e-mail list:
"Having been involved in the permitting of the Cheney site as a county commissioner and again during the mill tailings removal process, I distinctly remember that the DOE wouldn't even let tailing mixed with battery acid be disposed of there. Now they want to use the site to store toxic mercury, which will need to travel through Grand Junction and Mesa County while en route?"
Former County Planning Director Bennett Boeschenstein took it a little further:

"The conditional use permit that the County granted to the Department of Energy specifically stated that the only waste that could be disposed of at this site was low level radioactive mill tailings from the Grand Junction area. This case demonstrated that County has the right to require local land use authority on BLM land. This is because of a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Mesa County which states that the BLM will require local land use approval of activates on BLM land in Mesa County.

Therefore, any change in the conditional use permit would require additional hearings with the County Planning Commission and the County Commissioners and should be denied. The DOE will attempt to assert federal preemption, but there is already a precedent set by the original conditional use permit."
Several other local columnists and bloggers have also weighed in against the storage facility, but for me a lot of the reasons not to support its location here came from County planning personnel after the Commissioners voted to re-zone the Whitewater area for denser residential development. As planners were literally gushing over the development potential of the greater Whitewater area, I'm sure that visions of Mercury containers being trucked to a storage facility just a couple of miles from this new 'hotbed' of development had the powers that be, and their predecessors, scratching their heads as to what DOE is up to.

I'm not an expert on these types of issues, so I defer to those who are or who have been there.
The history of the Cheney site's permitting and prior operation, combined with the future of the greater metropolitan Whitewater area as envisioned by Mesa County planners, makes the transportation to and storage of Mercury at Cheney problematic, illegal, and highly ill-advised.

Mesa County has done, and is continuing to do, its bit for King and Country with regard to energy development. This proposal is an example of too much soot on the porch, another overpass to nowhere.

Hopefully the DOE here will get its earful tomorrow, and that will be the end of it.

Have a good week.

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