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The Wealth of Water Waste

by Clinton Crockett Peters

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About Clinton Crockett Peters

Clinton Crockett Peters is the author of Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Mis-fits of Ecology, forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press. He has been awarded literary prizes from Shenandoah, North American Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Columbia Jour-nal. He holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow, and is ABD pursuing a PhD in English and creative writing at the University of North Texas. His work also appears in Orion, Southern Review, Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, The Rumpus, Catapult, and elsewhere.

 

July 20, 2017

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Twelve of us canoe on the Green River in Utah, whose color, a buttery turtle shell, almost earns its name. Along with the six barrels of food choices, jerky and Nova bars, two toilets, seven tents, and sunscreen, we barge sixty gallons of H2O. The old manure, piss, and, especially, the uranium, of the Green renders the water unfit for quenching our sunbaked thirsts.

Gliding downstream, the canyon funneling the cool morning air, the escapism of canoeing puts me in mind of possibilities. I imagine the uranium sitting on the river bank, collecting sun. It would be ready for a barge to ship to a railroad and then, perhaps, power a municipality. I picture that collected dynamite of a thousand, effervescent suns helping to render a climate changeless earth.

I suppose my relaxed utopian fixing, repurposes my inner accountant. Diggers and weavers of the internet can provide answers to the impact of waste were it collected and marketed and not left to foul a potable thoroughfare. This is how to make Capitalism work, maybe, a monstrosity tamed by imagination.

The way uranium poisoning functions, one either inhales or ingests the toxic dust, which enters the bloodstream. The kidneys try valiantly and then vainly to filter out the poison, but the toxicity eats away at the organs’ cells, until they shut down like an old factory whose jobs were outsourced. The body, like a town depleted, responds in misshapen ways.

Only one refinery site, the Green River Mill, produced 183,000 tons of uranium, leaving 114,000 cubic yards of tailings, enough to fill 87 million one liter soda bottles with sludge.

I think about those bottles lining the river shores, ready for purchase. A uranium fuel pellet the size of a bullet has as much energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, which is enough to make 14,000 pots of coffee, which we paddlers need.

But of course you would need refined ore for that. But if tailings were enriched in some way, a kind of annihilative compost, a phosphorescent recycling? All is possible in the mind of the sun-addled boater.

We drift along the Green before dozens of mining camps and ancient logging settlements, Kiwa bunkers and trails now worn like an old gray mare. We past the sulfuric magma of Earth's geysers, German tourists toeing rocks, thinking of skinny dipping, annoyed at our gleeful offerings of stringcheese. 100 miles of river stretching with the memory and uranium, beyond to the dried gates of the Pacific.

I paid $500 to be there plus the expense of my peanuts. The Germans paid much more. And how much is a river worth? I should ask the bighorn, or the muskrat who builds his duplex on the bank, or the man covered in radiation scars, whose kidneys detonate with pain.

“Bank” is a funny word, one that denotes a river flank where we camp and the wealthy power centers of robber barrens and economic bombs. It is the simplicity of time cleaving into land, shaping itself. It is the currency and domino theory of Capitalism, one that went unvoiced in the Cold War, but was surely the looming threat.

These banks are not so far apart. I clicked plastic with fingers to wake money to frolic from one invisibility to another to be here. These same fingers cradle the radioactive run-off as it lies on my skin. There is no escaping either bank as we paddle mid-stream.

Years apart, when I canoe the Missouri River, I am vice president of bagel remembering, spare tire changing, and paper work shuffling. I list instructions to our 20-something crew who don’t want to hear a guide lecture about paddle strokes when there’s a copperhead buzzing nearby. This river is where Meriwether Lewis’s Newfoundland bounded and barked and warded off buffalo, where now thousands of heads of cattle graze, their grandfatherly lips munching roughage.

As the tall grass glides through the river of their rumen and partying bacteria, the whole Mighty Missouri becomes a cistern. Up to 40,000,000 pounds of manure per year in-stream, or 806,000 50-pound bags of Black Kow manure @ $4.98 plus tax, enough to fertilize a farm the size of Delaware. These resources were flowing past our ankles, whirling around our canoes, why we asked our participants not to swim nose-deep in the eddies.

But what if this too was gathered, generating a profit for the filtration entrepreneur? Even the morning flushes of Manhattan undergo centrifuge until (voila!) a feast fit for the crops of Colorado. So much is talked about with the loss of ecosystems, of wildernesses, of our place in the biocommunity. But even selfishly we’re not accounting for the dollars poured into water, left to curl and curdle in streams around us. Rivers could be the neo-eco-capitalist’s ATM.

This possibility does not occur to a colleague on the Rio Grande in Big Bend, Texas. Overturning mid-rapid, he belly-ups, coughing runoff. He swallows the hardiest microbes who make their presence known through his shivering and evacuation of stomach and bowels. He too is evacuated. People die every year swimming in the Grande. Five million gallons of nutrient-rich sewage, $4 million in fertilizer, bob to the ocean.

As a solution, my boss a timber-armed man with grizzly beard, sails a canoe down the rapids with my friend, who lies vomiting in the hull, protected by a sleeping bag. The river splashes over the gunnels, spraying him and wasting its wealth. Collected, the traces could fill a hundred Home Depots and pay for the hospital where he later recovered. But now, they were coating his lungs as he rocked and puked, my boss ferrying him like a container ship taking its load of goods to port.