Leavitt and The Utahnization of America
by Richard Oxman
November 1, 2003
From the very first, when we told people of our intentions to relocate to Salt Lake City they asked the inevitable question: "Why there?". That can be variously translated (and was, at times) to "Are you Mormon?" Or... "Isn't it mostly Mormons there?" Or..."How are you going to fit in with the Mormons?" Those mormonic comments were often followed by expressions of concern regarding the well-known conservative climate. If I had said we were moving to New York, no one would dare underscore the fact that a lot of Jews live there, or think of pointing to its liberal bias. But with Mormons and Utah, people don't seem to think it matters. And --with their pigeonholing-- they really think they have a handle on what's going on there. We did.
I won't go into the nooks and crannies surrounding the take on Mormons. Rather, the focus here is what really is a problem for the Beehive State and the rest of us. First noticed something strange driving through the desert, coming over a crest, crossing over the Nevada/Utah line. The unearthly pink glow stretching as far as the eye could see near Wendover made me instinctively reach for imaginary protective gear. That's Wendover as in Wendover Range (No Access). The familiar glare of casino lights was on our backs, but a ghastly, ghostly sight before us was unlike anything I had ever seen. What had they tested there? Better yet, how did they ever get away with it? And...why isn't it the only topic on the table in town? At twilight, that American Moonscape was very scary.
Moving along 80 east toward the so-called Great Salt Lake, the Dugway Proving Grounds and Tooele County provide a very strong whiff of things to come. However, having come all the way from comfy Santa Cruz, California, I guess we were holding out hope for something down the road, downwind.
According to the Utah Legislative Fiscal Analyst, in 2000, Utah accepted 97% of the radioactive waste sent to commercial radioactive waste landfills. Utahns speak of "low-level" waste to calm their nerves. And they seem to be doing a good job; I've never seen people anywhere who more resemble characters from the first version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." But, in fact, the term "low-level" is very misleading. It does not mean low-hazard. The term includes everything but spent nuclear fuel rods, transuranic wastes from nuclear weapons production, and uranium mill tailings. And it has to be monitored for at least 500 years. Not a good scenario for a population that's asleep at the wheel.
I went to a Task Force Meeting of Legislators at the State Capitol a few days after arriving. All of the information above was laid out for the representatives by eloquent members of HealUtah. The legislators were actually rude, very dismissive. And it hit me immediately, these guys (and that one gal) on the dais (behind the solid oak barrier) have known these facts for a long time. And yet, in spite of the public interest (ISOTPI), they're pushing to bring in more waste, and more dangerous waste. This in spite of the fact that there have been only six other commercial radioactive waste dumps licensed in the U.S. besides Utah's Envirocare. Each has leaked radiation into the environment. Four are now shut down. It's really sad that HealUtah has been convinced by the powers-that-be that they must only play within the usual paradigms. Oh, where is Phil Berrigan when you need him? To touch the state....
It would be totally comical, if it weren't so serious, to contemplate Leavitt as the nation's Environmental Chief at the Wheel. The lesson here, however, is that in the Land of Leavitt it has long become unlivable. There are no birds to speak of, no butterflies. One doesn't see any on a normal walk in the inversion-plagued capital. Or hear any. Even the remaining bees are of the so-called aggressive African variety, not what used to populate the Beehive State. Well, I think it's time to change that to Ostrich State anyway.
On the shores of the Not So Great Salt Lake -- one can now drive to Antelope Island! -- USMagnesium, formerly MagCorp, is facing problems: it is being sued by EPA, it is accused of stealing minerals from federal lands, magnesium prices are tumbling and it is called the nation's biggest air polluter. That from Steve Wilson of the Associated Press in very conservative Salt Lake Tribune. Coal and Chlorine production, incineration of waste, military testing and the residue of years of neglect and actions ISOTPI have created what's the true Dumping Ground Zero of the U.S.
Utah is home to five national parks with visibility concerns (to say the very least). The problem is the approximately 85% emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and pollution-related haze. Ben Fulton of the City Beat says that the "technology for removing almost 90 percent of sulfur from smokestack emissions has existed for the last quarter of the century.... But the political will from electric companies lags. In fact...they'd rather go to court than change their filtering system." And in Utah, the government must prove that power plants contribute to haze before the industry is saddled with regulations.
As legislators in Utah contemplate pushing through a plan whereby the state would haul in hotter radioactive waste than it's ever seen, people are leaving the state quietly, having lost faith in the possibility of positive change. But where are they going? As Utahns debate whether or not to allow Class B&C radioactive waste into the state, they avoid the main issue. To wit, it doesn't matter much if the opposition has their way --very unlikely-- and the disgusting stuff is plopped down in adjacent Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada or New Mexico. That accomplished the threats would still exist. It's clear that the problem of radioactive waste must be tackled at its source. Whether one has roughly 3000 truckloads traveling part of the way on two-lane roads to Nevada --roughly 12 shipments a day for more than a year of workdays OR one hauls it to Envirocare (ISOTPI) with involving only 17 trips, with strings of 60-odd flatbed railroad cars, over as little as eight months, the scenarios are clearly a terrorist's dream.
Although Leavitt insists he has made great progress, unprecedented strides, toward establishing Utah as the nation's recreation capital, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) said on October 26th that it was "immensely disappointed" with the governor's results. The OIA is once again on the verge of pulling their big trade show out of the state, and taking 34,000 visitors and $24 million with them. In spite of this, the Bureau of Land Management is poised to auction more oil and gas leases on Utah's scenic wilderness landscape. The destructive wheels of bureaucracy have turned forward without so much as a "boo" from the governor.
It's a no-brainer to see that Leavitt should have been left out from the start; that, in spite of the incessant bickering back and forth about his qualifications that took up so many precious heartbeats. The question remains: What are we going to do about the Utahnization of America? It's not just them. It's all of us. And as long as people from progressive quarters such as Santa Cruz (and elsewhere across the nation) focus on the superficial questions ("Isn't the place wall-to-wall with Mormons?") instead of zeroing in on what should be the important concerns, we are lost. To pigeonhole, to label, is to remove the unpleasantness of confronting something or someone.
Sylvie, my partner, and I worked for the better part of a year to organize a huge nonprofit, international event (OneDance: The People's Summit) in Utah. It was slated to take place in January 12-14, 2004 at the new Salt Lake City Main Library, and we actually relocated, in great part, to make it easier to direct traffic leading up to the summit. Everyone from al-Jazeera and AK Press to Mickey Z and Z Magazine is on board. But perhaps for the first time ever, what will, arguably, be an historic gathering had to relocated because of concerns over pollution. In fact, I can't think of many events of any kind or degree of importance that were rescheduled because of pollution considerations. Oh yes, there was the Three Mile Island Corporate Picnic that had to be relocated on March 28, 1979. Sorry. For our part, we won't let Michael Parenti or Cynthia McKinney be subjected to the disgusting health hazard that is Salt Lake City. For that matter, we won't allow strangers from Maine or Mississippi wanting to join hands at the summit to do so in the ghostly glow of God-knows-what. Certainly, our three-year-old, Marcel, will be happy that we decided to make the excruciating and expensive effort to relocate back to Santa Cruz for a OneDance on the coast. That'll do for now, but it's a bandaid.
"Either everyone dances or no one dances," warned the Tupamaros of Uruguay in the 60s. It's time to help the Utahns and ourselves from succumbing totally to the horrors fast overtaking us all. The problems of Utah are a national problem As Arundhati Roy has made clear, "The American way of life is no longer sustainable." We must take radical action, and take it soon. Weak measures like the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act are only a distraction from our focus on how little time we have to reverse the apocalyptic flood. And Hillary's recent comment that she looks "forward to working with Gov. Leavitt" is the eco-counterpart to her husband's bombing of four countries in a few months. New paradigms must be utilized. And it matters not how great the task, how daunting the prospects. As Michael Parenti notes, "fighting against the current is always preferable to being swept away by it."
Richard Oxman is co-organizer of OneDance: The People's Summit and the "Hunger for Peace Strike," both of which, hopefully, will make it unlikely for the likes of Bush/Cheney to rule in 2004, and where radical action strategies will be proposed/implemented. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Articles by Richard Oxman