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Refinery blues

Cally Carswell | May 06, 2010 03:13 AM

The Sinclair Wyoming Refinery's clumsy environmental record continues to stumble: Last week, some 80 dead birds, most of them western grebes, were found in a wastewater pond laced with oil spilled from an undetermined source in the refinery.

The accident is the latest in a spate of spills (see our story, "Sinclair flare up") at the refinery in the past year. In frequency and scale, Sinclair's spills are particularly egregious compared to other Wyoming refineries. The release last May of nearly 3 million gallons of gasoline-grade fuel was the worst spill in the state in decades. But as crack energy reporter Dustin Bleizeffer of the Casper Star-Tribune points out, their dismal safety record is a glimpse into a statewide problem:

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A water hog, redeemed

Lisa Song | May 04, 2010 09:55 AM

"A big tamarisk can suck 73,000 gallons of river water a year. For $2.88 a day, plus water bounty, Lolo rips tamarisk all winter long."

So begins Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Tamarisk Hunter," a short story set in a dystopic future when humans must fight tamarisk for every drop of water. The story might be made up, but "73,000 gallons" a year is based on the belief that each tamarisk plant can guzzle up to 200 gallons of water a day.

As it turns out, that number is simply wrong. Last Wednesday the U.S. Geological Survey reported that tamarisk consume about the same amount of water as native cottonwoods and willows — 32 gallons a day. It's put a big dent in the idea that replacing tamarisk with native trees saves water.

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Oh vaulted ancestors!

Nicholas Neely | Apr 29, 2010 10:00 AM

The Granite Mountain Record Vault is a veritable temple, a slightly more natural- and secure-looking version of the one in Salt Lake City, not far away. A spiritual glow even radiates from the arched entrance to its tunnels (at least in this promotional photo). But this vault holds way more folks than the spired House of the Lord can seat: billions of people, in fact, from over 100 countries, described in 170 languages.

That's because the 65,000-square-foot space, set deep in sheer metamorphic rock, is the Mormon Church's repository for genealogical and historical documents of all sorts, including the Church's own internal records. Rows of steel cabinets contain more than 2.4 million rolls of microfilm with 3.5 billion images of birth certificates, census results, etc., from the world over. No doubt, you and your extended family are emulsified somewhere within.

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It's a skunk-eat-pelican-eat-trout world out there

Nicholas Neely | Apr 27, 2010 08:38 AM

Each spring, on the shores of Nevada's Pyramid Lake, fishermen in waders stand 50 feet out in the water, on stepladders, casting long, narrow loops for huge Lahontan trout. They look a little like Kodiak bears lined up on an Alaskan river. But, these men aren't the only fishers around. American white pelicans glide long, slow stretches over the lake, skimming above their coal-and-ivory reflections.

Pelicans are charismatic, and stirring to watch. So a recent dispatch from Idaho caught my attention: the state's Department of Fish and Game just released three badgers and two skunks on Gull Island in the Blackfoot Reservoir, which, like Pyramid Lake, hosts one of the 13 to 15 major breeding colonies of white pelicans in the West. These mustelids are charged with just one thing: devouring pelican eggs. The department wants to reduce the colony's populations from 2,400 birds to 700, because they apparently threaten the native Yellowstone cutthroat trout that live in the reservoir and spawn in the Blackfoot River. They also scarf up stocked rainbow trout, to the aggravation of anglers.

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Myths about myths

Ed Quillen | Apr 26, 2010 04:46 AM

    You'll probably soon hear about the "five myths about green energy," if you haven't already. They're the talking points of a book to be published this week, Power Hungry: The Myths of "Green" Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future by Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
    He wrote a short piece in the Washington Post recently, and while "Mythbusters" is one of my favorite TV shows, it seems to me that he's missing a few facts.
    For instance, he argues that solar and wind power have big footprints: "A nuclear power plant cranks out about 56 watts per square meter, eight times as much as is derived from solar photovoltaic installations, and that "The real estate that wind and solar energy demand led the Nature Conservancy to issue a report last year critical of 'energy sprawl,' including tens of thousands of miles of high-voltage transmission lines needed to carry electricity from wind and solar installations to distant cities."
    To a degree, that's a fair criticism. But the compact nuclear power plant he cites also involves one or more uranium mines and their dumps for waste rock, along with various mills and processing plants and their tailings piles, a place to store spent fuel, a transportation network, plus transmission lines. A coal-fired plant has a similar sprawl, from mine to ash pile.
    So if he wants to compare footprints, that's fair -- but only if includes the entire footprint, rather than just using the little toe of the nuclear plant and the entire sole of the solar plant.
    Another of his "myths" is that green energy would reduce American imports from unsavory regimes. There are quite a few oil exporters, he argues, but many forms of green technology, like high-capacity batteries and wind turbines, rely on rare-earth chemical elements known as lanthanides. And "China controls between 95 and 100 percent of the global market in these elements."
    Thus "adopting the technologies needed to drastically cut U.S. oil consumption will dramatically increase America's dependence on China."
    But anyone who follows the mining industry over time knows that when demand increases, prices rise, and previously undeveloped mineral deposits turn into working mines. China has no monopoly on lanthanide deposits; there are known deposits in Australia, Canada, and California -- all with savory regimes and reasonably friendly to the United States.
    Perhaps in his book, Bryce has the room to address some of these issues that conflict with his mythological arguments. But from what has appeared so far, he's not making solid arguments.


Next stop: water on tap

Lisa Song | Apr 20, 2010 10:26 AM

This weekend, thousands of Navajos will pile their trucks with 55-gallon drums and drive to the nearest watering station. If they're lucky, the lines will be short, the coin-operated water pipes will work, and they'll return home with enough to drink, wash and cook for another week.

Hauling water is a common chore in the southern Navajo Nation, where many residents must drive long distances (up to 100 miles round-trip) to fill up their containers. The region is infamously dry: groundwater aquifers are deep, hard-to-reach and depleted faster than they can be replenished. The water, when it comes, is often salty. And until 2004 -- when the Navajo Nation won a settlement for 326,000 acre-feet from the San Juan River -- the Navajos had little access to surface water. (For detailed coverage of the battle over Navajo water rights, read Matt Jenkins' 2008 story "Seeking the Water Jackpot").

For some Navajos, the wait for running water is almost over. Last Monday marked the dedication ceremony for the Eastern Navajo Waterline, which will pipe groundwater from northern areas of the New Mexico half of the Nation (near Nageezi) to the water-starved southern part (around Pueblo Pintado).


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More than a starter castle

Ed Quillen | Apr 16, 2010 06:27 AM

    Tom Chapman, the land developer whom just about everybody loves to hate, is at it again.
    Chapman's specialty is buying inholdings -- private land surrounded by public land -- and then either developing them, or threatening to develop them until he gets a good deal. He's been the subject of many articles in High Country News; here's an overview .
    Earlier this month, he was in the news for some land purchases near Telluride.
    He also has a 112-acre inholding in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park near Montrose, where he's built a 4,754-square-foot house he's trying to sell, Casa Barranca I, which offers "elegance, privacy, security and exclusivity."
    And now he's proposing Casa Barranca II (barranca means gorge in Spanish, so the name is apt), a 25,000-square-foot "ultra-luxury residence" which "will be positioned high astride Signal Hill, the highest point in the park -- dominating over the entire 30,000-acre Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park."
    In other words, a chance to show off your superiority to other humans in the most conspicuous of ways.
    There's not much the Park Service can do about it, as the inholding comes under county zoning, and press accounts quote Montrose County officials as saying this conforms to county codes.
    So it could be quite the ridge-top castle, although lightning or high winds might be a problem.


No s#%@w

Nicholas Neely | Apr 15, 2010 09:30 AM

One look at the Oregon landscape, and you wouldn't suppose "squaw" is a dirty word. Roughly 130 geographic locations in the state are labeled with the S-word. S- creeks, S- mountains, S- lakes and S- peaks — it's found all over the place (and not just in Oregon, as HCN has reported). This June, however, the Oregon Geographic Names Board, which has a surprisingly long history, will gather to rid its land of this bona fide slur by approving replacement names for natural features.

Oregon used to have the most "squaw" locales of any state, but over the past decade, 50 or so of those have been renamed, including many landmarks near the town of Sisters. Squaw Back Butte, for example, is now Akawa Butte, the Wasco tribe word for badger. But coming up with new names is and has been challenging, and politically fraught. It’s near impossible to satisfy all stakeholders.

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Women writing the West

Nicholas Neely | Apr 14, 2010 11:02 AM

Over the weekend, I drove to Denver for The Association of Writers and Writing Program's annual conference, which assumed a bit of a Western theme this year. Poets and writers overran the downtown convention center, sampling from a myriad of readings and panels. One of these focused on the challenges women writing west of the Mississippi face, and the change these authors have brought to the Western literary landscape — a conversation I hope others will continue here.

Moderator Alyson Hagy, a Virginian now writing in Wyoming, began the discussion by suggesting women have brought a "certain feminine intuition" to Western writing. Annie Proulx, for one, drew much needed attention to long-closeted issues in her powerful short story collection, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, spotlighting homoeroticism and rape (in the stories "Brokeback Mountain" and "The Mud Below" respectively). "Didn’t it take a female?" Hagy asked the audience. "We don't have men writing that kind of stuff."

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Limiting Las Vegas

Cally Carswell | Apr 12, 2010 09:41 AM

The conclusion of a new report by the Sonoran Institute—that Las Vegas’ water supply can’t keep up with its interminable appetite for growth—isn’t particularly surprising. But it is timely.

The recent pummeling Las Vegas took from the recession presented the ballooning city with an opportunity to catch its breath. As the Las Vegas Sun puts it:

The valley could grow again. It could eventually fill the vacant homes and build a heck of a lot more, and it could construct a 300-mile pipeline to suck water out of eastern Nevada to support that.

But will that make a better Las Vegas?

The report's authors think not. The Sonoran Institute, a conservation think tank out of Arizona, developed a model to predict the growth capacity of Vegas' "disposal boundary," which consists of 27,000 acres of BLM land around the city slated for development. Based on current zoning, they determined as many as 500,000 new residents could eventually call the area home, pushing water demand—already too high—up almost 20 percent.

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