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Assessment begins on proposed U. cosmic ray project

Facilities on BLM land could offer clues about the universe

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The University of Utah has applied for a right-of-way to authorize its building a proposed Telescope Array Cosmic Ray Project on Bureau of Land Management property in Millard County.

The effort to get a right-of-way apparently is leading to preparation of an environmental assessment, if not a full-blown environmental impact statement.

The university says the cosmic ray observatory will measure particles from space as they enter earth's atmosphere, which could improve scientists' understanding of the nature of the particles and the universe itself.

The project has already begun, with one building up and construction starting on another. But much more remains to be done on the $12 million to $18 million observatory, which is to be built with the help of Japanese scientific institutions.

Eventually, the facility would have an array of 576 scintillation detectors, plus other features, spread out over 207,000 acres. The vast majority of that is under BLM control, but 21,100 acres are Utah school trust lands; 300 acres are under the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources; and 20,100 acres are private property.

While the observatory will be extensive in terms of sprawl, land actually occupied will be just under 25 acres, including road grading.

According to the university, scintillation detectors will sample particles coming from space and hitting a plastic sheet, while three florescence detectors in buildings will observe glows from the particles striking the atmosphere.

"All work on the FDs (the fluorescence detectors) would be performed by subcontractors under the direction of Mitsui Engineering and Shipbuilding of Japan, the primary contractor for the project, and Utah Commercial Constriction of Salt Lake City, the local subcontractor," says the project's plan of development. "The contractor would be under the direction of the University of Utah and Japanese colleagues."

The plan says the Delta area "is very suitable for this kind of experiment because of its relatively flat terrain, dry atmosphere and clear desert skies." The document is posted on the Internet at www.physics.utah.edu/~kai/TA/POD/POD.html.

In addition to these detectors, the project would have five communications towers, a central laser facility to calibrate the fluorescence detectors, 27 staging areas and a data processing center in Delta.

Construction should be completed by the end of next year, project backers hope. "We hope to run the observatory for 10 to 20 years, take data with it," U. researcher Robert Cady said.

Scintillation detectors would be built in Delta and moved by truck to staging areas were ground disturbance has already taken place. From there they would be lifted in by helicopter. They would be spread out three-quarters of a mile apart.

Cady said the array would begin about nine miles west of Delta and continue for 15 miles west. It would be a bit farther north to south, he said.

The Gunnison Massacre Monument is in the midst of the array, he said, though no facilities are closer than about half a mile from it. The monument marks the place near the Sevier River where members of a federal survey team headed by Capt. John Williams Gunnison was massacred by Indians in 1853.

Not too many miles from the observatory are the world-famous trilobite beds of Antelope Spring. Cracking open the shale of that area, generations of rockhounds have discovered fossils of ancient sea creatures that lived more than 500 million years ago.

Kai Martens, assistant professor of physics at the university, has sent a letter to interested parties asking for comments as the BLM and the U. start the project's public involvement process. "The university is contacting agencies, stakeholders and the interested public to assist in identifying issues and concerns," says the July 27 letter.

Anyone may respond to the plan on development by going to the Internet site. The letter asks for assessments of land-use and resource issues or conflicts that might occur.

"We expect to begin the EA (environmental assessment) document within the next 30 days," it adds. With the assessment, the public will have another chance to review and comment later this year, he wrote.

Areas of potential concern, according to a fact sheet distributed by the university, are:

Potential conflict with communications users in the area, such as wireless Internet systems and Air Force communications.

Possible damage to vegetation by vehicles and foot traffic.

Questions about protecting riparian and wetland values.

"Potential disturbance to some wildlife and plant species, particularly species of concern such as sensitive species, threatened or endangered species, etc."

"Slight possibility of interference with livestock grazing due to increased human presence."

More people under the Air Force's restricted airspace. (This is apparently a reference to use of the Air Force's Utah Test and Training Range in the Utah's western desert.)

Native American concerns.

"Cultural resources, such as archaeological sites, could be disturbed."


E-mail: bau@desnews.com