Note: This is as much a remembrance as anything else. I've now been around here long enough to write historical recollections of events I observed and first commented upon at the time they were happening. I was writing and cartooning for the original Stinking Desert Gazette in those golden days; some of the drawings, comments and quotes that follow first appeared in the SDG....JS

In the summer of 1987, the economy of Moab and Grand County hit rock bottom. A few years earlier, as uranium prices plummeted, the Atlas Vanadium Processing Mill north of town closed its doors for good. It seemed as if the mainstay of Grand County's economy had vanished overnight and Moab was on its way to becoming a ghost town. Empty homes and 'For Sale' signs were everywhere; at one point as many as one in five homes was on the market. The way the story went: Everybody moved to Elko.

The "economic collapse" was viewed differently by different people. For the old time Moabites, the ones who had cut their teeth during the Uranium Boom days of the 1950s, Moab's demise was an unmitigated catastrophe. It was inconceivable to them, and heartbreaking as well, that the party was over. For almost 40 years mining had sustained the Moab community and now it seemed as if the town had nothing to show for its past success except boarded up Main Street businesses and a shrinking tax base.

For another part of Moab's dwindling population, however, the downturn in the economy offered an unexpected opportunity. Since the early 1970s Moab had become a mecca for a small but growing group of young pilgrims, for lack of a better word, and I was one of them. We were searching for a different kind of life, away from the polluted madness of urban areas. In Moab, Utah, we thought we'd found it. Coming to Moab meant making some sacrifices. We knew we'd never get rich. We knew we had removed ourselves from cultural and social opportunities that we'd grown accustomed to in our old home towns. And we knew we'd probably always be a vocal but persistent minority in a very conservative part of the American West.

The end of the mining boom presented yet another disaster for some, and an unexpected dividend for others. With the exodus of the mining community, housing prices plummeted, but for the first time, all those seasonal rangers and river runners--the marginal citizens of Moab--could suddenly afford to buy a home. We went from being bearded hippies to responsible land owners in eighteen months. And at the same time, Moab's economic slump seemed to offer an opportunity to re-define ourselves as a community. What kind of town did we want to be as we approached the last decade of the 20th Century? It seemed as good a time as any to abandon our title of "Uranium Capital of the World."

First the rumors...

But how to make a living...that was the rub. In the fall of 1987, Moabites began to realize how divided they still were on the subject. A rumor began to make its way around town about a proposal to build an incinerator--a toxic waste incinerator--at Cisco, Utah, 35 miles upstream from Moab. I can still remember my first reaction to the story; it was similar to the way I responded recently to rumors of chairlifts and gated condo developments: There is no way they'll ever get away with such a project.

Sounds like "famous last words," doesn't it?

But as summer turned to fall, hard information began to replace the gossip and the truth was pretty amazing. The Grand County Commission--Jimmie Walker, Dutch Zimmerman, and David Knutson--had been working behind the scenes for six months with a corporation named CoWest, Inc. CoWest specialized in building toxic waste incinerators and they now wanted to construct what they claimed would be a state-of-the-art facility on 180 acres of land in Cisco. But the land there was not zoned for that kind of use; in fact, there was no heavy industrial zone in Grand County at all, and the county commissioners, seeing a way to dramatically boost the county tax base, thought they'd stumbled across a gold mine. Or a high-tech version of one. And they were convinced that the residents of Grand County would support them.

Jimmie, Dutch and Dave were all lifelong residents of Moab and survivors of the economic downturn. But none of them sensed how much Moab had changed in such a short time. Just five years earlier, in 1982, Moab residents had supported the proposed nuclear waste repository by a 3 to 1 margin, despite the fact that the facility was to be built within a few thousand feet of Canyonlands National Park in San Juan County (That project collapsed in the late '80s.). So the fact that the commissioners enthusiastically supported an industry that would incinerate a staggering variety of toxins, from benzene and paint thinners to pharmaceutical wastes should not have surprised anyone.

But the community was enraged, or at least part of it; what no one could predict was the extent of that anger. Was this just another vocal minority? Or had Moab and Grand County attitudes shifted? We were about to find out.

A Public Showdown and the Grand County Alliance

By late October, the word was out and opposition was quick and fierce. A group calling itself the Colorado-Utah Alliance for a Safe Environment gathered 2000 signatures in just a few weeks from citizens in both states. But the petition had no legal standing and Commissioner Walker dismissed the signatures out of hand. At a meeting of Republicans in January, Walker said, "Thousands of hours were spent in the shopping malls in Grand Junction on that petition...they spent two months collecting those signatures and that doesn't impress me at all...90% of those names came from Colorado." Walker and the other commissioners were convinced that Grand County residents supported the incinerator and called efforts by the opposition, "fear politics" designed to "scare the masses."

One thing was certain, the "masses" were definitely scared--letters to the editor poured into the Times-Independent, mostly in opposition to the incinerator and the Grand County Alliance was formed to consolidate Utah opposition.

The Grand County Alliance was really born one night in Castle Valley. Andrew Riley had caught wind of the rumor and shared this incredible tale with fellow residents Jayne Dillon, John Groo, and Dave Wagstaff. From that kitchen table, a strategy to combat the incinerator took root and the Alliance grew. An attorney and lobbyist from Salt Lake City named Ralph Becker offered hundreds of hours of free legal advice. Bill Hedden gave invaluable amounts of time, sifting through the scientific information. Kyle and Carrie Bailey worked tirelessly to organize and recruit new members to the Cause. And Carl and Debbie Rappe's Main Street Broiler was always a Rallying Point for the incinerator opponents.

According to Jayne Dillon, the fledgling Alliance sought help and advice from the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, but were turned down flat. "They made us feel like a bunch of hicks," Jayne recalled recently. "We told them, 'We're a small community with national parks all around us and we're trying to stop a TOXIC WASTE INCINERATOR!' but they told us the issue wasn't big enough for them." But the environmental group Greenpeace did what the Sierra Club would not. According to Dillon, a small contingent of Greenpeace workers came to town, and worked quietly and behind the scenes to assist the Alliance any way it could.

On the evening of December 2, 1987, a "toxic waste information meeting" was held at Star Hall. Commissioner David Knutson assembled a panel of CoWest officials, federal and state regulators, and private citizens. Almost 400 people crammed into the building for one of the most spirited gatherings in this town's recent history. Dean Norris, the president of CoWest became an instant antagonist for incinerator opponents. Dressed in gray polyester and sporting a huge diamond-studded pinky ring, Norris looked like a bored and slightly annoyed man who would much rather be somewhere else. He barely tolerated the barrage of questions by angry residents that filled much of the evening.

When the shouting was over, nothing had been resolved and a showdown looked inevitable. The commission showed no sign of backing off and Moabites continued to vent their anger through the letters page of the T-I. Finally, on December 17, editor Sam Taylor became so overwhelmed that he refused to print any more letters--pro or con-- on the incinerator issue, "at least until the County moves into the public hearing process in the early part of next year."

The Petition

Grand County residents kept scribbling anyway, but now they were signing their names to a petition that would put the issue on the November ballot. In Utah, voters can hold a referendum election to decide issues like this; it requires 12.5% of the total number of votes in the last gubernatorial election. In Grand County, that meant 418 signatures.

On January 25, 1988, the commissioners ignored a hostile crowd of 200 people and unanimously approved a "heavy industrial (I-2) zone." It was a big open door for hazardous waste and everybody was in everybody else's face. It was a mean and ugly, and yet strangely inspiring sight. It should be remembered that not everyone, by any means, opposed the commissioners and CoWest. Supporters of the incinerator were there in force as well, and tempers boiled over on both sides, from one end of the commission chambers to the other. It was a classic case of Culture Clash--the Old Moab v. the New--and looking back from the distance of a decade, it's not difficult to feel empathy and support for both sides. At the time, however, lines of allegiance were drawn in the dust.

Three weeks later, sponsors of the referendum presented petitions to County Clerk Fran Townsend with more than 500 signatures. The petition asked that "Section 2-5-12-C of Ordinance 134, passed by the County Commission on January 25, be referred to the people for their approval or rejection at the regular election to be held November 8."

Approval of the Initiative Petition would implement a new law that would restrict the uses in any Grand County zone. It said: "No zoning ordinance in Grand County shall allow: the incineration or burning of hazardous and/or toxic waste; the storage of toxic waste other than that created as a byproduct of local business or industry; the manufacture of toxins and viruses; the manufacture of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides; the manufacture of chemical or biological weapons."

In early March, the commissioners announced that they'd put off any zone change on the Cisco incinerator site until after the election. Then in May they unanimously approved a heavy industrial zone for the land owned by CoWest with the exception of an incinerator, leaving that decision to the voters. What was that all about we wondered until, at that same meeting, Dean Norris was asked if he had any other plans for the I-2 zone. "Anything I can attract," he replied. The implication was clear---if CoWest failed to secure the right to build its incinerator, there were all kinds of nasty things that could be placed in an I-2 zone. Jimmie Walker read the list of uses and it was downright scary.

With heavy media coverage from Salt Lake City and Grand Junction, television viewers watched Jayne Dillon bolt over a table to present Commissioner Walker with a letter from a Salt Lake attorney who believed the commission's actions were illegal. A weary Jimmie Walker replied, "I'm going to assume we acted legally unless told otherwise by a judge or jury."

A Referendum and a Commission Election too

With the referendum against the incinerator securely on the ballot, two of its staunchest proponents also faced a tough re-election campaign. Commissioners Dutch Zimmerman and Jimmie Walker both filed again as Republicans and this time they had some formidable opposition from the Democrats (always a rare treat in Grand County). Longtime residents Ferne Mullen and Merv Lawton publicly opposed the incinerator and many citizens cast ballots based on that one issue alone. Ferne was the retired head nurse at Allen Memorial Hospital and a lifelong Democrat.

Merv, however, was an interesting choice to face Walker. He had recently retired as president of the Rio Algom mine in Lisbon Valley and had been connected to the mining industry all his life. Naturally, some of the more liberal Democrats questioned his sincerity on the incinerator issue. Lawton himself was fairly candid on the subject; while he didn't oppose the idea of incinerators as an effective means of hazardous waste disposal, Merv felt that such incinerators should be constructed near the waste source, not in some remote location like Cisco. The argument was always: if incinerators are so damn safe, why do these guys want to construct it out there in the Middle-of-Nowhere?

As Election Day approached, this community was wound as tightly as a Warn winch. Coffee shop conversations were tense and animated, but as November 8th approached, supporters of the initiative to stop the incinerator were feeling confident and the commissioners were beginning to look like besieged and outnumbered defenders of a lost cause. Still, with Moab's long history of mining and conservative politics, no one could be sure of the outcome.

The polls closed at 7 pm and Grand County residents were glued to their television sets. But in Moab, we weren't watching the local news, waiting for the anchors to read us the results. Thousands of us were staring at the Channel 6 weather scanner, waiting for the little white roller bar at the bottom to start flashing returns. As each voting district reported its results to the county clerk, Fran Townsend would write the results on a large sheet of poster board with a felt marker, and the Channel 6 Guy would race from the courthouse, back to the studio and punch the results into the roller.

Early on, a trend became evident--the incinerator was toast. By an ever-widening margin, Grand County voted in favor of the initiative and soundly defeated the project, ultimately by a margin of almost 2 to 1. The commissioner races were closer, but by 10 pm, it was clear that both Lawson and Mullen had been elected by comfortable margins. Most remarkable was the turnout itself--more than 80% of all registered voters went to the polls on November 8, 1988; it was a record then, and we have rarely come close since.

The Aftermath

The incinerator issue died on November 8, 1988 and no one has ever seriously considered a similar project again for Grand County. The statistics that came out of that election are still remarkable, because the vote was so free of an ideological bent. While almost two-thirds of the population opposed the incinerator, a bare majority voted against Walker and Zimmerman. In the presidential election, Dukakis took a beating from the Republican George Bush. So liberal versus conservative, Democrat versus Republican didn't play a pivotal role; instead, it was about our quality of life here, and toxic waste incinerators did not sound like an enhancement.

For Walker, Zimmerman and Knutson, they found themselves cast as the Darth Vader Trio to many of us in 1988, but it was hardly fair. None of them stood to profit personally from CoWest; coming from lifetimes in the extractive industries, the incinerator seemed like a quick way to increase the tax base in a depressed county on the verge of blowing away like so much dead tumbleweed.

Opponents of the incinerator celebrated. Had a new day dawned in Moab and Grand County? We all hoped and dreamed that perhaps we really could re-define our community and create something new and different. Something to be proud of.

The "winners" and "losers" alike put the election behind them and moved on with their lives. But the question still remained: How do we make a living in Grand County, Utah? A year before the referendum, in November 1987, the Times-Independent ran a small story in its second section. The title of the article was, "Mountain biking in SE Utah is becoming a popular sport."

Years later, longtime resident Tom "Too Tall" Simmons, fed up with Moab's transformation to a tourist town, would load up his Volkswagen micro-bus and move away from the newly annointed "Mountain Bike Capital of the World"...forever. His alleged last words as he worked slowly out of town, past new motels and McDonalds and endless streams of tourist traffic?

"Incinerator? Why was I against an incinerator?"

To Zephyr Main Page October - November 2000