Desert Storm

Chip Ward moved to Grantsville, Utah, in the 1970s, looking for an unsullied place to drop out of the rat race and raise a family away from it all -- but somehow it didn't turn out that way. Instead, he found out that even on the edge of the Great Basin, a godforsaken desert expanse that covers parts of four states, you can't get away from it all. In fact, the Great Basin -- deemed expendable because of its sparse population and uninviting landscape -- has evolved into one of the nation's great dumping grounds.

As a new Westerner, Ward quickly learned graphic lessons about the delicate balance here between industry and nature. But those perceptions were more finely etched as he became aware of the evident dangers surrounding Grantsville, a seemingly pristine small town in the middle of nowhere. Nuclear testing in Nevada sent radiation adrift over the valley in the 1950s; Magcorp, a magnesium refinery, spewed toxic gases over the community; the nearby Chemical Agent Munitions Disposal System incinerated nerve gas, discharging dioxins into the air -- and people were getting sick. The economically strapped community had once invited these illness-causing industries into its midst, but the situation looked like a many-headed monster to Ward, who aimed to do something about it. He slowly righted Grantsville's turned cheeks with a grassroots effort fired by those very health issues.

"In Utah, we have figured out how to make the land pay," Ward says. "But although we understand how the land generates wealth, we do not understand how it generates health. It's a classic tradeoff" -- one Ward wasn't willing to make. To that end, his book Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West, published last year by Verso, recaps Grantsville's battle with an unusually clear and precise eye backed by painstaking research. Ward came to Grantsville to be a librarian (he still is), and he's made good use of reference skills learned on the job: The true-life, first-person adventure stands firmly on a bed of facts and figures spit out without fanfare. But it also sometimes leaves you feeling like Ward is a kid with his finger stuck in a dike, holding back an almost inevitable "ecocidal" deluge.

"I keep waiting for somebody to come by and relieve me," Ward says, revealing the sense of humor he considers essential to any grassroots movement. His efforts have produced some victories, but even those come with qualifications. Magcorp has agreed to implement new technology that could reduce toxic output by as much as 90 percent, but that doesn't begin to address existing dioxins. Other issues have only been acknowledged -- and that's not enough. "If you look at the whole first generation of nuclear power plants, they are all old beyond their intended life cycle," he says. "Here's the scenario: One has an accident, and then everybody decides to decommission, leaving uncounted tons of debris behind. We will use the West Desert as an enabler. The problem is, it'll be shipped through everyone's neighborhoods. It's a problem no matter where you live."

There's more. "If incineration is a large ship sinking stern-first -- and it is -- Utah's incinerator would be the bow," he continues. "Our local dilemma is that the bow is where the rats gather to defend themselves. Now we're having public discussion here about how to decommission the incinerator, but it's a shame if you recycle bad decisions into the future. This stuff has a life of its own. We need to look at the least-toxic alternatives -- if you have an alternative that involves no risk, it's unfair to consider anything else."

Every area has its own environmental problems, he notes, and as he persistently points out, Grantsville's problems aren't as isolated as they seem at first glance: "When I first got alarmed about people being sick here, I went to a conference, and the first delegation I met was from Alaska. I said, 'Oh, my gosh, Alaska? You have problems there?' This is where I was planning to run to."

But there's no running away. As Ward did his research on how toxic waste bioaccumulates into the food chain, he says, "I realized you can move away, but you can't stop eating. The dioxin sludge behind the Magcorp factory will eventually flush into the Great Salt Lake, and in turn, it will be eaten by brine shrimp, which will be commercially harvested for feed. Even if you live in San Francisco or Denver or Santa Fe, you'll still be able to eat our dioxin -- which we don't actually encounter here but get the bad credit for."

So Ward is in this fray to the bitter end. Certainly, his book taught him lessons about the bigger picture: "The political implication is that you have to get citizens at the table sooner, so when decisions are made, they have power over the criteria. You have to empower people," he says. "And then there's the spiritual part. We need to be humble about what we don't know."

His activism also had surprising personal implications. "It looks like this book will open different doors for me, but when I wrote it, I wasn't trying to change my life -- I was trying to change the world. Ironically, it's beginning to do the other. But if you were to take the book away, I'd still be fine. I've got a great life."

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Susan Froyd started writing for Westword as the "Thrills" editor in 1992 and never quite left the fold. These days she still freelances for the paper in addition to walking her dogs, enjoying cheap ethnic food and reading voraciously. Sometimes she writes poetry.
Contact: Susan Froyd

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