“If we don’t do something to clean up the town out here, we’re just looking at a powder keg,” said Thompson Springs Fire Chief Mark Marcum at the Jan. 5 meeting of the Thompson Springs Special Service Fire District.

Marcum described a harrowing house fire that took place just down the street from his own home in Thompson Springs, a small community in Grand County just north of Interstate 70. As of the 2010 census, the town has just 39 full-time residents.

On the evening of Dec. 2, Marcum battled the flames solo as the only qualified firefighter close by while waiting for more personnel from the Moab Valley Fire Department to arrive. Marcum said that he worried about abandoned trailers located just a few feet from the burning building.

“If those caught on fire we’d be in real trouble, because it would just be a domino effect with other abandoned buildings in the area,” Marcum told the fire department board, which is made up of Grand County commissioners.

Later, multiple Moab Valley Fire Department engines with full crews arrived and fought the flames until past midnight.

Marcum warned commissioners that with the many abandoned structures and overgrown properties in Thompson Springs, it’s only a matter of time before a similar event occurs—or worse.

The town of Thompson Springs must address not just fire hazards, but also health hazards, building code compliance, unclear property boundaries and outdated zoning according to a Community Action Team devoted to the project. The team is composed of staff from the Southeast Utah Health Department, the Moab Valley Fire Department, the Grand County Building Department and the Grand County Planning and Zoning Department.

Grand County Building Inspector Bill Hulse said he believes it’s important to start putting more effort into Thompson Springs, as he foresees it becoming a “bedroom community” for the Moab area.

“We have a lot of employees moving out that way because they can’t afford to live here in town,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of people out there living in vehicles and in broken down campers.”

On Jan. 14, Grand County Commissioners Mary McGann and Trisha Hedin accompanied the Community Action Team on a tour of Thompson Springs to survey community needs. Hedin reported back to the commission at their Jan. 19 meeting.

“Mary and I discerned that it’s going to take quite a bit of effort—money, in the end,” she said.

Commissioners vowed to look for grants that might apply to significant clean-up efforts in Thompson Springs.

Community buy-in

Orion Rogers, director of environmental health for the Southeast Utah Health Department, emphasized that community buy-in from current Thompson Springs residents is key to a successful effort.

“I’m uniquely familiar with Thompson Springs, because I grew up there, and my father still lives out there,” Rogers told the commission. “I really feel like I understand many of the challenges that we face as we move forward—and probably the most important thing to do is to partner with the community out there to help with these clean-up efforts.”

The Community Action Team held a livestream town hall meeting on Feb. 9 for Thompson Springs residents.

Grand County Planning and Zoning Assistant Abby Scott described her office’s efforts to properly verify and draw county property maps. One meeting attendee said she had inherited a property in Thompson Springs with dilapidated structures and other debris on it.

“I’m more than willing to clean it up, but I wanted to make sure the lot is where I think the lot is,” the landowner said, noting that some structures appear to be partly on her property and partly on an adjoining lot.

Scott said the county is hoping to undertake a holistic approach to correcting lot maps, but that it may take some time; landowners wishing to get accurate data more quickly should contact the Planning and Zoning department.

At the meeting, Rogers acknowledged that some of the housing in Thompson Springs is considered substandard—he listed health department requirements that all homes have safe drinking water, permanent heaters, a functioning sewage disposal system and be free from pests and chemical contamination.

Evan Tyrell, director of the Solid Waste Special Service District #1, also attended both the Jan. 14 Thompson Springs tour and the Feb. 9 town hall. He observed older trailer homes and mobile homes that may contain asbestos; tanks and drums potentially containing hazardous liquids; appliances like refrigerators and air conditioners containing freon; and tires which may promote pests like mosquitos.

Tyrrell said community clean-up days used to take place regularly in Thompson Springs, but hadn’t happened for the last five years or so. He said that the Solid Waste District’s participation in the clean-up effort was complicated by financial concerns.

“Most of the trash in Thompson Springs is leaving the county—that, in effect, results in no revenues for the Solid Waste District,” Tyrell said at the town hall. “That makes it difficult to consider fee waivers for a Thompson Springs cleanup.”

He encouraged the community to pursue contracting with a Grand County-based trash hauler, so that Thompson Springs waste would go to Grand County landfills and be subject to disposal fees. Tyrrell said he was optimistic that the current Grand County provider, Monument Waste, would be able to devise a viable way to service the small, remote town.

Grand County’s Klondike landfill, north of the airport on Highway 191, would be a much shorter drive for Thompson Springs residents than the Moab landfill but only certified trash haulers may bring waste to the facility. Tyrell said that residents with large amounts of debris, potentially including demolished mobile homes, would need to hire a commercial trash hauler anyway.

AJ Rogers said that’s the conundrum—those with the most junk and waste on their property often don’t have the means to address it.

“If everybody had a ton of money, this place would be shiny,” he said.

Tyrrell announced that while he doesn’t see the Solid Waste District being able to take on all the financial burden of cleaning up Thompson Springs, there are two upcoming county-wide waste disposal events. On March 6, hazardous household wastes may be disposed of at the Community Recycle Center from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. Between March 15 and March 27, the Moab landfill will accept a limited amount of construction debris, yard waste and tires for free.

“The town of Thompson has a great deal of potential, and I hope we can turn it around and make it a pleasant place to live,” said McGann at the Jan. 19 county commission meeting, before noting: “That’s going to take money.”

“If we don’t do something to clean up the town out here, we’re just looking at a powder keg.”

– Mark Marcum