Jon Kovash

News Correspondent - Moab

Originally from Wyoming, Jon Kovash has practiced journalism throughout the intermountain west. He was editor of the student paper at Denver’s Metropolitan College and an early editor at the Aspen Daily News. He served as KOTO/Telluride’s news director for fifteen years, during which time he developed and produced Thin Air, an award-winning regional radio news magazine that ran on 20 community stations in the Four Corners states. In Utah his reports have been featured on KUER/SLC and KZMU/Moab. Kovash is a senior correspondent for Mountain Gazette and plays alto sax in “Moab’s largest garage band."

Speakers at White Mesa Mill, uranium
Jon Kovash / Utah Public Radio

The last remaining uranium mill in the U.S. is located near Blanding. During the last two years monitoring has revealed that the mill’s waste pools are emitting dangerous amounts of radon gas. But despite those readings, regulators want to eliminate requirements for radon monitoring.

The White Mesa uranium mill is only three miles from the Ute Mountain Ute village of White Mesa. Recently tribal air quality experts reported what they call “alarming” findings concerning efforts to reduce radon emissions by covering toxic sludge ponds with radioactive water. The tribe has allied with several environmental groups to oppose the EPA’s intention to discontinue radon monitoring.

The growing oil field, along the entrance to the Island in the Sky portion of Canyonlands, became more controversial when citizens learned that Moab city water is being used for drilling, and then a well leaked oil all the way to the Green River. Now a new network of pipelines and a gas compressor plant have sparked a citizen watchdog group that has raised safety and environmental concerns. I talked to Bill Love, a member of the Canyon Country Coalition for Pipeline Safety.  

Jon Kovash / Utah Public Radio

A controversial oil and gas field along the approach to Dead Horse Point and Island in the Sky is getting more controversial. On Wednesday, about 30 protestors assembled with signs at the Moab’s BLM parking lot.

“We don’t want their oil and gas revenue money. And the only way we’re going to stop them is to continue that pressure is to be as vocal as we possibly can to anyone who is willing to listen,” one protestor said.

“And to go forth to the city council and the BLM and say wait a minute, what the hell’s going on?” another protestor said.

Due to citizen complaints, Heila Ershadi, a member of the Moab City Council, became aware that Moab’s two public water systems have been selling millions of gallons of culinary water to operators of oilfield tanker trucks.  

“Someone noticed the number of large trucks that were traveling down 500 West from a city operated station where there’s a filling station, and lots of trucks driving through this residential area. The concerns I have heard residents raise is that it’s too many trucks and that they drive quickly and recklessly down residential roads,”Ershadi said.

Moab has seen a drilling boom in the last two years, and many more wells are planned. The water trucks, along with tandem dump trucks full of drilling sand, are also creating dramatic new traffic on local highways that access Canyonlands. Moab is just one of scores of towns across the West where city water is being sold for industrial uses, including drilling and fracking, and cities sometimes even drill new wells to supply the water. The driller of nine active oil and gas wells near Island in the Sky says the wells are not being fracked, saving water. But Ershadi said she fears that could change sooner than the city has imagined.

aerial view of White Mesa Mill
Google Earth

America’s last remaining uranium mill, located in Blanding, has been violating federal safety standards, a regional environmental group has charged in federal court.

The Grand Canyon Trust, which has long opposed uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, has filed its intent to sue in Utah Federal District Court. At issue is whether the White Mesa uranium mill is operating outside of the law and contaminating the area with high radiation and dust levels. Taylor McKinnon is the energy program director of the Trust.

"Agencies aren’t enforcing, and citizens need to. That’s what’s happening here. Utah isn’t doing its job, so we’re going to do that job.”

McKinnon says monitoring has established that federal standards for radon emissions have repeatedly been violated.

“We think these are pretty clear numerical violations. There’s not a lot of wiggle room. Based on monthly reports, those emissions have now exceeded the standard two years running,” he said.

fcc, low power radio, FM radio, radio,
JON KOVASH / UTAH PUBLIC RADIO

November was the deadline to apply to the Federal Communications Commission for a new round of low-power FM radio licenses. In Utah, there are 15 proposals for new stations.

The deadline has just passed for a historic window to apply for low-power FM frequencies. As soon as next year, Salt Lake City and several small towns in Utah could have new non-profit radio stations up and running. Limited to 100-watt transmitters, these will be what are sometimes called “hyper-local” stations.

white mesa uranium mill
JON KOVASH / UTAH PUBLIC RADIO

America’s last active uranium mill, near Blanding in San Juan County, announced plans to shut down for at least a year, beginning August 2014. It’s going to have a devastating effect on a would-be revival of uranium mining in the Four Corners.

The White Mesa Mill directly employs about 200 people in Blanding. Many more people, including suppliers and miners all across the region, depend on the mill.


Jon Kovash

Back in 2008 the Utah legislature launched a somewhat bold experiment: they created a new class of vehicle – the “street legal” off-highway vehicle. Five years later, the law remains mostly uncontroversial, but has had a big impact on the ATV rental and sales business. Jon Kovash reports from Moab, one of Utah’s ATV capitals.

rob bishop, jason chaffetz, public lands
JON KOVASH / UTAH PUBLIC RADIO

Two Utah congressmen say they are well on their way to forging a historic “grand bargain,” in which “the pie would be divvied up,” the pie being publicly owned lands in Eastern Utah.

Friday night, Congressmen Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz were in Moab, halfway through a tour of Eastern Utah counties. They are promoting legislation they hope will eliminate the prospect of a Greater Canyonlands national monument, and pave the way for new development. Congressman Chaffetz addressed a large, mixed crowd that sported both “Sagebrush Rebel” T-shirts and “Protect Wild Utah” buttons.

Emily Stock, tar sands protest, civil disobedience
JON KOVASH

The recent demonstration and blocking of a road at the site of a proposed tar sands mine in the Book Cliffs area is part of a wave of direct actions across the country. What they have in common is the willingness of protestors to get arrested.

Southeast Utah has become the front lines in the battle against Tar Sands mining and the Keystone Pipeline. Last month, as in dozens of places across the country, activists in Utah conducted a direct action training camp, which culminated in the Book Cliffs action on July 29th. Among the ranks was Emily Stock, a Moab resident who has been working with a group called Canyon Country Rising Tide.

Jon Kovash

The Moab uranium cleanup is meant primarily to allay the concerns of downriver users of Colorado River water. But will the river ever become pristine again alongside the tailings site? Jon Kovash reports.

Jon Kovash

The Sierra Club, one of the oldest, largest and most influential environmental organizations in the US, has entered Utah politics in a big way. They started a national campaign that supports a proposed Greater Canyonlands. UPR's Jon Kovash reports.

Penshire Media

For years now the entrance to Moab at the Colorado River Bridge has been a vast construction site, but that will all change by this fall. UPR’s Jon Kovash reports.

It’s a $20 million project that will result in a new park and bicycle transit center, and three miles of bike path going up the Colorado River Canyon. Summer Roefaro is a transportation engineer and visiting bike scholar helping oversee things, and said he has a vision for the center.

Jon Kovash

The Moab uranium cleanup is expected to be completed in 2025, and then suddenly, the town will be 450 acres bigger. UPR’s Jon Kovash reports:

Wednesday evening about two dozen Moab residents gave their opinions on what can eventually be done with the uranium tailings and mill site, which is currently owned by the Department of Energy. Russ Von Koch chairs a local oversight committee for the cleanup.

In a five-week period two men have died near Moab who were engaging in a new extreme sport, back country rope swinging. As a result, the Bureau of Land Management is studying whether stricter rules should be in place. UPR's Jon Kovash reports.

The first death was on March 24, when a West Jordan man perished while rope swinging under Corona Arch, down river from Moab. On Sunday, Adam Jason Weber, also from the Salt Lake City area, died while rope swinging in nearby Day Canyon. Grand County Sheriff’s deputy Brent Pace was on the search and rescue team that responded  Sunday.

A controversial state plan to introduce mountain goats to the La Sal Mountains, near Moab, could be approved soon. UPR's Jon Kovash reports.

Tuesday night at an open house in Moab, biologists from the Division of Wildlife Resources office in Price unveiled their plans to the public. Among them was wildlife biologist Justin Shannon.

Many scientists have been predicting that effects from climate change in the Southwest will be especially severe, Utah in particular.

In January, Moab’s temperatures never rose above freezing for the entire month. With pipes freezing all over town, Ron Pierce, Moab’s weather historian, was among many old timers who had never seen anything like it.

“As far as I can remember, it’s the coldest spell we’ve had in a long, long time,” said Jayne Belnap.

moab tailings clean up department of energy
JON KOVASH

After a three-month hiatus, the Department of Energy will resume shipping uranium tailings by rail from Moab to a disposal site near Crescent Junction.

On Tuesday, Jeff Biagini, the project manager, addressed the citizen watchdog committee for the tailings cleanup. 

“Basically on Monday next week we’ll bring all the employees together, in Moab, all roughly 110, 112 of them, and have a kickoff meeting.”

Frozen pipes
Jon Kovash

An unprecedented cold spell in Moab has resulted in frozen water pipes all over town. The prolonged sub-freezing temperatures have wreaked unprecedented havoc on Moab’s water system. Ron pierce has lived here since 1954 and is considered a local weather expert.

"As far as I can remember it’s the coldest spell we’ve had for a long, long, long time. The average cold temperature for the month I think has been about 3.4, something like that, for the month of January."

guns school
Jon Kovash

In the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings, the Moab School District is ready to employ a full-time sheriffs deputy whose only job is school security.

The deputy’s time would be divided among Moab’s three public school campuses. The effort is being spearheaded by Sheriff Steven White, who has worked with the school’s Safety Committee during the last 10 years, ever since the Columbine shootings in Colorado.

Construction Begins on Moab's First Zipline

Dec 13, 2012

The new zipline will be on the estate of Charley Steen, the famed uranium king who put Moab on the map in the 1950s. It’s the same property that includes the Sunset Grill, high on the hillside, which used to be the Steen residence overlooking the town. Mark Steen, Charley’s son, has teamed up with locals Mike Bynum and his son Casey to build the zipline. It was Casey’s idea.  

After a well-attended public meeting, the Moab Sagebrush Coalition has mounted a petition drive, and a boycott of businesses signed the letter asking President Obama to create a Greater Canyonlands. Among those actively involved is San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lynam.

The Outdoor Industry Association wants new national monument protection for 1.4 million acres surrounding Canyonlands, and industry giants like Patagonia are helping lead the push. But last week’s letter to president Obama was also signed by a long list of Utah and Moab businesses.

A week-old petition to change the name of Negro Bill Canyon, near Moab, has already attracted hundreds of signatures.

The petition is to the USGS Board of Geographic Names, and it’s not he first effort to change the name of Negro Bill Canyon, named after early black settler William Grandstaff. 12 years ago the board declared there was no community support for a name change, because Grandstaff allegedly called himself "Nigger Bill." Louis Williams, a 14-year Moab resident, has long been skeptical of that claim.  

This summer the Mountain Gazette, the region’s only mass circulation literary magazine, celebrated its 40th birthday. I have to disclose that I am a senior contributor to Mountain Gazette, and over the years have received hundreds of dollars in compensation. But last month I was compelled to travel to Summit County, Colorado, where contributors over four decades held a first-ever gathering. Around a snapping campfire, John Fayhee welcomed the assembled writers:

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