The National Park Service was prepared to close Lake Powell after hundreds of discarded batteries showed up earlier this year on the bed of the popular recreation reservoir, the Deseret News has learned.
Fortunately, the potentially dangerous toxins from the batteries were not at an alarming level. Now, federal, Utah and Arizona investigators are trying to determine the source of the batteries in the lake, which sprawls along the Utah-Arizona border.The batteries were exposed when the continuing drought - now in its third year - drove water levels down. The level is now 65 feet lower than peak capacity.
Scattered across newly bared canyon floors and mudflats were proof of a squalid and dangerous habit of dumping used batteries overboard. At least 200 were scattered across the lake bed, along with other trash. Most were in the vicinity of the lake's largest resort, Wahweap.
The resort is just over the border, on the Arizona side of the reservoir, although its Stateline Boat Ramp is on the Utah side.
Batteries contain acid and, of longer-lasting environmental concern, lead. The acid may neutralize quickly in the somewhat alkaline lake, but pollution from lead conceivably could damage fish, build up in the food chain and eventually get consumed by anglers.
"As the lake recedes, these articles become clear on what was the very deep bottom of the lake before," said Harry Belinger, director of public affairs for the lake's main concessionaire, ARA Leisure Services, based in Philadelphia.
"So we started cleaning up what we could. We sent divers out and so forth, and sent special boats out . . . We brought up 200 to 300 batteries, 133 barbecue grills, over 300 deck lawn chairs, miles of rope, tons of plastic trash cans and even five ovens."
Many of these items weren't thrown overboard deliberately. The lake's notoriously powerful winds blew light objects like deck chairs and trash cans overboard. But heavy items like boat batteries usually aren't blown in.
Asked if ARA threw batteries into the lake, Belinger said, "Certainly it's not a company policy."
Did any employee ever throw batteries in? "I can't say no and I can't say yes," he said. Belinger added that the company has operated the Lake Powell concession only since December 1988. Some of the debris obviously was underwater a long time.
Also, it may be impossible to trace the source of the batteries.
"We operate 300 houseboats on the lake. Private boat owners operate another 500. Now, each of those boats ordinarily has two marine batteries."
According to Friday's Denver Post, Arizona environmental quality investigators are checking allegations that an underwater pipeline at ARA's Wahweap Marina illegally discharged waste and that gasoline from another source was allowed to seep into the lake, said department spokesman Bill Norman.
The Arizona attorney general's office has taken the lead role in the investigation, and its Utah counterpart is cooperating with the Arizonans. In addition, the federal government's inspector general's office is investigating.
"We would anticipate results in the very near future," said George Berklacy, a spokesman for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. The NPS is involved because Lake Powell is part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, administered by the Park Service.
The agency's director, James M. Ridenour, ordered the recreation area, ARA Leisure Services, and the NPS regional office in Denver to cooperate fully with the state investigations. "He also has ordered an evaluation of all the marinas in the National Park System to determine if similar dumping is evident," Berklacy said.
About 50 marinas are operated in Park Service areas nationwide.
"The director has asked the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to run tests at Lake Powell, which they did. They have advised us that it does not consider Lake Powell to be a health risk to humans."
Ridenour feared that contamination from the toxic junk in batteries might force closure of the recreation area. "We were prepared to do it," Berklacy said.
Spurred by the discovery of the batteries, the Utah Bureau of Water Pollution Control and the Utah Bureau of Solid and Hazardous Waste recently dispatched experts to check on the waste in Lake Powell. Neither group found anything alarming on the Utah side.
Don Ostler, director of the Bureau of Water Pollution Control, said "that doesn't necessarily mean there are no problems . . . we did not see any major issues."
There were "stockpiles of some of their solid waste debris, including batteries, on kind of temporary storage pads," Ostler said. "We couldn't see anything that indicated they were getting into the water."
However, the health inspection concerned present practices, not past activities.
Utah officials feel "there is a need for a significant overall water quality study of the lake," Ostler added. "But quite frankly, we didn't encounter anything very significant from the water pollution side in the inspection we just made."
In addition to batteries, chairs and boat-carried trash, construction material like cables and piping showed up when the lake receded.
"It is definitely of concern," said Larry May, assistant superintendent at the recreation area, based in Page, Ariz.
"As the water level has gone down, not only have we been involved in cleanup activities, but so have our concessioners." The Park Service, ARA Leisure Services and other private companies have initiated a "trash tracker" program in which volunteers clean up the junk that surfaces.
Meanwhile, ARA's Belinger said the company isn't only cooperating in the investigation, it's even more concerned than anyone else. The lake must be treated with respect, he said.
"Our approach is A, to clean up, and B, to make sure that it doesn't happen again. The basic message is that if you dump anything in that lake, you're out of here."