Tuesday. 2:23 pm.
Today is beautiful. The Colorado sun is blazing, a crisp wind is howling and the air is bristling with vitality. I am happy, happily healthy and by all possible measures ecstatically cancer-free! It’s been three weeks since surgery and, despite a nasty hiccup or two, things are progressing perfectly. Sorry for the absence of updates. There has been, unsurprisingly, a hurricane of emotion clamoring through my head – of course, some of it good and some bad. As I continue to get stronger, these thoughts and feeling are beginning to make their way out of my head to take a more structured form. Please bear with me and stay tuned.
In the meantime, I thought I might introduce you to one of the most important people in the world. Bold statement? Yes. True? Undoubtably. Her name is Rebecca and she has been my dear friend for many, many years. Arrogantly, I like to claim that she is my misplaced twin sister. If ever there was going to be a contemporary incarnation of my beloved Thoreau – sprinkled with the heavy sensitivity of Whitman, the wry pragmatism of Twain and the unchecked balls of Hemingway – she is it…in girl form. She is all this and more. I have been better for having her in my life. And, as I continue to struggle with the implications of cancer and my liberation from it, I will continue.
Always the optimistic philosopher, she recently wrote to me from her home in western Carolina and implored to me the transience of this cancer. Her letter, received prophetically on the day of my surgery, demanded, in part, that I understand the following:
You, your Spirit, your Being, Your VITAL energy is SO much bigger than cancer. It (the cancer) has served it’s purpose, to bring balance back to you, to remind you of the expansiveness of life and your role in it, to not only let your intellect shine, but let your soul shine…and you’ve gotten the message, you’ve heard it, and responded, and now you beat this thing, because you will, because anytime you put your mind to something, you accomplish it … it is really quite remarkable Tony Bacon – the determination and will that you house in your body.
I have spent considerable time over the past three post-OP weeks in contemplation of her words. Tears have been shed. Unspoken personal promises have been made. And, dreams of a new, different future entertained.
With that said and while I continue to sort-out the ideas that I hope will allow you to glimpse the culmination of cancer treatment through my eyes, I hope you will enjoy the following. It is a piece derived from one of our many adventures – both internal and external – looking for our place in the world. If anything, it’s a story of two young idealists trying to convince themselves that there exists correctness. Sadly, I am aware that, despite their age, the questions that we asked on a monsoon-strewn bike ride so long ago remain viable to this day…perhaps even more so. The entire piece was originally published in the MATTERzine literary journal in 2003. Here, I will split it into 4 parts for your pleasure. Thank you all so very much and please enjoy part one:
On Boulder and Nuclear Physics
“Australopithecines,” Rebecca repeated, a bit slower. “You know…evolution, Lucy, the Missing Link?”
“I’m not the anthropologist…you are,” I said. “But I have heard of Lucy though.”
“Good,” she said. “That’s a start.”
* * *
The U.S. Congress passed the Uranium Mill Tailings Control Act (UMTRCA) in 1978 in response to public concerns about potential health hazards from long-term exposure to uranium mill tailings. The UMTRCA authorized the Department of Energy (DOE) to stabilize, dispose of, and control uranium mill tailings and other contaminated materials at inactive uranium ore processing sites in a safe and environmentally sound manner.
During its 28 years of operation, the Atlas Mineral Corporation mill at Moab, Utah accumulated an estimated 10.5 million tons of uranium mill tailings in an unlined impoundment in the floodplain of the Colorado River.
* * *
“Sorry,” she said with a smile. “The basic story is this: These two paleontologists dig up some bones somewhere in East Africa…”
“Where in Africa?” I asked, glancing over to her in the passenger seat as we sped southwest toward Boulder. Looking up to the rear-view mirror, the Colorado summer sun glimmered off the polished metal of the bicycles in the bed of my truck, from the slivered quartz crystals imbedded in the sun-bleached asphalt further behind, and from the hazy detail of the Great Plains beyond.
“It was southern Ethiopia,” she replied. “Not sure exactly where, it doesn’t really matter right now. East Africa…” Leaning forward to turn the volume down on the radio, she continued, “anyway, the two guys dig up these bones that turn out to be the skeleton of Lucy, an australopithicus. They figure that she was about three, maybe three and a half, million years old.”
Outside the slow rolling plains beneath the mountains of the Front Range streamed past, a curious watercolor blur of aged rural farmland slowly being displaced by steel and concrete.
“Okay, so what? Why is she so important?” I asked. “What does she have to do with anything that we are talking about?”
“She could walk on her legs. You know, upright like we do.”
“Oh,” I said hesitantly, feigning understanding while reviewing what she had been telling me. “Wait…oh shit!”
Rebecca was grinning at me, her smart eyes bright and encouraging.
“Upright, meaning she could use her hands. She could use tools,” I began to put it together. “The Paleolithic and Neolithic. Agriculture. I get it. When was that, a few million years later?”
“About ten thousand years ago,” she corrected, happy that I had finally grasped her point. “That’s how it all started.”
“Are you sure that it’s not supposed to rain today?” she asked, craning her neck toward the windshield to look up to the darkening sky. “It looks like it’s going to get nasty out.”
* * *
A radiological survey of site soils outside the tailings area was completed by Harding Lawson Associates during the summer of 2000. The objective of the survey was to identify the extend of soil contamination exceeding applicable radiological cleanup criteria. Results of the survey indicated that radium-226 concentrations over a large portion of the site exceeded the cleanup criterion for surface soils of 7.5 picocuries per gram. The final environmental impact statement for the site estimated that an additional 0.8 million tons of surface soils and subpile soils will also require removal to meet radiologic cleanup standards.
* * *
“So about ten thousand years ago the agricultural revolution takes place…and Western Civilization begins.”
“Yeh, I’m with you now,” I replied. “Jericho, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the like. This is where we came from. We all progressed from there.”
“If you want to call it that,” Rebecca said, dripping with a young idealist’s apathy. “Did you read Ishmael yet?”
“Uh huh,” I answered. “It scared me.”
“Pretty smart gorilla?”
“Yeh,” I said. “The simplicity of what he was saying is so obvious that it chills me whenever I think about it. A gorilla teaching us that we are on the road to extinction…first killing him and his kind…then continuing on to ourselves without the slightest hesitation.”
“I know. But remember,” she said, her sarcasm thick. “It all stems from that ten-thousand-year notion of progress.”
The sun had become fully eclipsed by the oncoming storm’s towering thunderhead. The monsoon season in the Rocky Mountains can be spectacular and dangerous. Tops hidden in the dark sky, the Flatirons – those famous Pennsylvania sandstone monoliths – rose directly above as we started out of the city and entered Boulder Canyon.
“True enough. But do we, as people, carry the majority of the responsibility for his care?” I asked, continuing her thought.
“I think so, too,” I said. “As do most people, I hope.” The problem lies in whether or not we act upon this responsibility…”
“…really though,” I continued. “Since the start of civilization, people have done some amazing things in a short amount of time. I don’t think that it has to be an all or nothing deal. People just don’t know when to control themselves. Right? We are going to get to the point where we won’t have a choice. We will just have no choice but to learn.”
“Ten thousand years is a short amount of time to screw-up the world,” she muttered.
“Yeh, why can’t we just coexist with nature and move forward at the same time?”
* * *
Besides radiologically contaminated tailings and soils, surface contamination includes a variety of disposal ponds used during processing activities, trash disposal trenches, and other features used for waste management during mill operations. Chemicals present in these areas may include barium chloride, lithium fluoride, sodium fluoride, and organic solvents based on knowledge of past practices…Leftover chemicals from ore processing are still stored on-site, evidence of PCB spills from transformers exists, and based on the tie of their construction, on-site building materials very likely contain asbestos.
* * *
“Take the old Rocky Flats plant back there,” I said, pointing over my shoulder to the south. The rain outside began to fall hard, slowing our progress up the canyon to a crawl. “That is a prime example of man taking something amazing – beautiful even – and ruining it.”
“Why? What do they do there?” she asked. “It’s a military place or something, right?”
“Was a military place. They used to make nuclear triggers there.”
“That sounds lovely,” she smirked, knowing that I was about to begin another long-winded story, forever accommodating my bookish eccentricities. “What the hell is a nuclear trigger? And, seeing that it sounds awful, how can you think that it is beautiful?”
“A nuclear trig…”
A sudden flash of white-hot, sterile lightning pierced the canyon walls directly above. My heart raced. Simultaneously, the scalpel-perfect strike was announced by the heated scream of deafening thunder. The storm was releasing its fury directly overhead – violence begetting more viciously exponential violence.
“Wow,” she cried. “That was close.”
“Yeh,” I said after a long pause, hands numbly caressing the steering wheel. Coming back to my senses, I continued, “Um…where were we…yes…nuclear triggers. Triggers essentially emit a huge number of neutrons in order to start the chain reaction in a nuclear bomb. But, it’s not the nuclear bomb that’s beautiful, it’s the science behind it.”
Incredulous, she shifted nervously in her seat, all the while grinning toward the sky in anticipation. “You’re going to sit there…and try to tell me that nuclear science is beautiful?”
“Absolutely,” I answered, neck contorted to enable a better view of the sky’s magnanimous assault while trying to maintain some semblance of eye contact with the winding road. “It’s what we’ve been talking about for the whole drive. The chemistry and physics behind it is amazing and complex. The fact that we build devastating weapons with it doesn’t change that simple fact.”
“You’re crazy,” she said.
* * *
Groundwater in the shallow alluvium at the site has also been contaminated by uranium milling operations. Constituents of potential concern (COPCs) based on analytical information from several reports are ammonia, manganese, molybdenum, nitrate, selenium, sulfate, uranium and vanadium.
Most of the groundwater characterization to date has focused on discharge of ammonia to the Colorado River. Shepherd Miller Inc. estimated that approximately 800,000,000 gallons of groundwater would require remediation to reduce ammonia concentrations to acceptable levels. Remediation of additional COPCs has not been addressed.
* * *