Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Moab Native" and Moab Jim Debate the Moab Potash Conundrum


Close-up aerial view of the settling ponds at Potash, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

"Moab Native" and Moab Jim Debate the Moab Potash Conundrum

Near Moab, Utah, the Intrepid Potash Cane Creek Facility overlooks the Colorado River. With its in-situ mine and settling ponds resting so close to the river, I wondered about safety. If the earthen dams that impound so much brine were to fail, what environmental damage might ensue? In August 2009, I began writing about potash production near Moab and later regarding newly planned mines near Holbrook, Arizona.

With over two hundred thirty-five articles on this website, I am always happy to see a reader comment on my work. Before publishing, I always research my articles to the best of my ability. Even so, I enjoy constructive criticism and do my best to correct errors in fact. By putting my name on every article, I put my own integrity on the line every day.

Aerial view of the Intrepid Potash Cane Creek Facility near Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)It was with a spirit of enthusiasm that I read a comment by one “Moab Native” regarding my August 21, 2009 article titled, “A Place Called Potash”. Although I did not agree with everything Moab Native wrote, until his final sentence I was encouraged by his thoughts. In his parting words, Moab Native elected to call me “ignorant”. Here are “Moab Native’s” comments, typos and all, followed by my responses to his supposed “facts”.

Moab Native – “There are actually numerous errors in this blog. Potash is not calcium carbonate, not potassium carbonate, but potassium chloride (KCl).”

Moab Jim – According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the definition of potash is “Various potassium compounds, chiefly crude potassium carbonate”. According to Wikipedia, “potash refers to potassium compounds and potassium-bearing materials, the most common being potassium chloride (KCl).” I cannot say which website is correct, but these two authoritative sources disagree on the chemical formula for potash.

Moab Native – “Also, the Moab facility does not produce "industrial grade fertilizer" that can spoil the Colorado, but farm grade fertilizer.”

Washed out and environmentally degraded creek bed creates a dead zone at the Intrepid Potash Cane Creek Facility near Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Moab Jim – According to the “Industrial Products” page on the Intrepid Potash website, the company sells eleven different industrial products. How many of these come from the Cane Creek Facility is not mentioned. On the Moab, Utah page of the same website, the only product listed is “Muriate of Potash”, an archaic or technical reference to potassium chloride (KCL). According to the same webpage, “The potash and salt are then dried, sorted, and processed into various agricultural, feed, and industrial products”.

Moab Native – Also, the reason the facility is categorized as low risk, is that NaCl and KCl are naturally occuring minerals in the Colorado river watershed.

Moab Jim – According the Salt Lake Tribune article titled, “Dam Safety in Utah”, the Moab Salt (now Intrepid Potash) Stockpile Dam has a “hazard level” of “significant”. That dam has a height of seventy feet, can retain up to 1200-acre-feet of brine and drains an area of three square miles. The safety rating of any facility is only as strong as its weakest link. Since the predecessors to Intrepid Potash completed the Stockpile Dam prior to the requirement for environmental impact statements (EIS), no one knows if local precipitation could fill, overtop or breach the stockpile dam.

Moab Native – “The actual amount of dissolved salts in the system at any given time is dependent upon the runoff up stream. If all of the ponds were to breach at one time (only an act of sabotage could cause this) the amount of salts introduced would still be negligible.”

Aerial close-up view of brine retention ponds closest to the Colorado River near Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Moab Jim – If the “Monkey Wrench Gang” were to ride again, breaching of some or all the retention ponds would be possible. Moab Native claims that even a catastrophic failure of all the dams would produce "negligible impact" on the Colorado River. In his comment, he produces no evidence to back his assertion.

Moab Native – In the more likely case of a single breach, the cause woud be excess precepitation. The precipitation would act to dissolve the KCl and NaCl to bring the event to a null introduction to the river. Also, to a common sense viewer, it can be seen that the ponds depths do not exceed 6".

Moab Jim – Moab Native's assumption that only precipitation could cause a single dam breach is disingenuous. If sabotage could breach all of the dams, could it not breach one or two? Without a cleansing rainstorm to help neutralize the salts, concentrated brine could easily reach the river. The Salt Lake City Tribune article shows retention dam heights of twelve feet. The Intrepid Potash website mentions that “400 acres of shallow evaporation ponds”, but gives no depths. I consider myself a “common sense viewer”, but only someone with access to the retention ponds would know that each twelve-foot high dam retains only six inches of brine.

Moab Native – Regarding seismic activity. The canyonlands region has never recorded any seismic activity (allowing the existence of arches). The reason for this is due to the plastic flow tendency of the 7000 foot thick salt deposits underfoot. The layer of potash mined has already been filled in with plastic flow.”

Aerial view of brine evaporation ponds at Potash, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Moab Jim – "Never" is a long time. When popular Wall Arch collapsed in August 2008, no one could say why. The USGS database shows that there is a 1.062% chance of a 5.0 or greater magnitude earthquake within 50 kilometers of Moab, Utah within the next 50 years. The largest recorded earthquake within 100 miles of Moab was a 5.3 Magnitude in 1988. Even if Moab Native’s theory of "plastic flow" is correct, an earthquake originating outside of the immediate area could still affect the facility. Although excess precipitation or sabotage is more likely than an earthquake, there is no EIS to tell us what the various dams could withstand.

Moab Native – Regarding state inspection: inspections are conducted on a regular basis by the state. This includes runoff water testing and inspection of all the liquid holding earthen damns.

Moab Jim – The state may be conducting inspections of the ongoing operations at the Cane Creek Facility, but that does not mean that the facility is benign. Since the current retention ponds went into operation in 1970, they were and are exempt from ongoing environmental scrutiny. In the event of a future disaster, Intrepid Potash would surely use the “Moab Native” defense. I can hear them saying, “We did everything that we were required to do by law. If the dams broke, it was an Act of God” The term, “Act of God” is an insurance industry invention. It means, “We are not responsible for this disaster, God is”.

Moab Native – “Because ignorance is not bliss, ignorance is just ignorance.”

Aerial view or widespread environmental damage upstream from the Intrepid Potash Stockpile Dam near Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Moab Jim – Ignorance is a state of being uninformed (lack of knowledge). If any one of us has knowledge that others may require, it is our duty to share that knowledge. Having learned several new facts from Moab Native, I thank him and share his thoughts here. I agree that ignorance is not bliss. However, denigrating and denying the research and reporting of others can lead to a self-imposed, ignorant form of bliss known as self-righteousness.

Regardless of whether any dams at Potash break or not, a drive through the Cane Creek Facility is an environmental revelation. In recent years, Intrepid Potash has taken many environmental shortcuts, including uncontrolled flooding from the in-situ mining sites to their retention ponds. The only life that can survive in such a degraded environment is bacteria. Just because it is technically legal to inundate natural creek beds within the facility does not make it right. If state or federal regulators conducted an independent EIS at the Cane Creek Facility today, major changes in environmental management would surely be required.