A rock similar to this, containing radioactive yellowcake, has made a fascinating journey from San Juan County to the steppes of Kazakhstan. Photo courtesy writtenepisodes.com
Images of the Marlboro Man, from photographs taken in San Juan County, are used in advertisements across the developing world. Photo courtesy tobaccofreekids.org
by Bill Boyle
A rock from San Juan County has found a unique home as the only item in a 3,000-meter well, encased in concrete and buried deep under the steppes in the central Asian nation of Kazakhstan.
The rock has made a fascinating journey from an abandoned mine in San Juan County to the bottom of a deep hole in central Asia.
The story begins in 1981, when Michael Hugentobler was working as a farmer and rancher on the spectacular Dugout Ranch.
Hugentobler had recently left high school during his senior year and was working on home study courses to complete his high school diploma.
Despite the challenges, he enjoyed working on the ranch, a period of time which allowed him to plan his life and think about the future. The Dugout became a springboard for a remarkable life.
Fast-forward several years. Hugentobler, then a graduate student studying geology at Southern Illinois University, returned to the Dugout Ranch for a visit.
“I’m a geologist,” explains Hugentobler. “And geologists just love to collect rocks.”
Mike went to an abandoned uranium mine that he remembered from his work on the Dugout.
“I squeezed past the metal gate which was intended to close access to the mine and chiseled off a piece of sandstone which contained petrified wood and yellowcake. The rock is about the size of a computer mouse.”
The rock was added to his collection and followed Michael on a remarkable career that has taken him across the earth.
Working as an operations expert for a large oil services company, Michael began his working career in Houston, TX and worked for the next 15 years in far-away places such as Scotland, Nigeria, Dubai, Kuwait, Mumbai, and Kazakhstan.
“It was a piece of home that found its place on my mantle in temporary homes across the world,” explains Hugentobler.
The small rock sitting on the mantelpiece was not the only reminder of home in far-away places. Marlboro cigarettes are, by far, the top selling cigarettes in the world. In 2009, more than 472 billion Marlboro cigarettes were sold worldwide.
In Kazakhstan, the average adult smokes more than 2,000 cigarettes every year, according to the World Health Organization. This places Kazakhstan as the twelfth highest user of cigarettes in the world.
Advertisements featuring the iconic Marlboro Man have often been filmed in San Juan County. While the ads are not allowed in the United States and in other developed countries, they are still very popular in the developing world, including many of the nations where Hugentobler worked.
It would not be uncommon to see an image of the Marlboro Man, working cows in San Juan County, as a part of spectacular photographs on billboards, on the sides of busses, or in print advertisements.
However, it was not the health implications of the advertisements, but the small rock from the Dugout Ranch that almost caused an international incident.
Michael explains further, “As I progressed through my career, the household became smaller and, as a result, I got tired of carrying all this stuff all over the world.”
When Michael received a new assignment to work in Moscow, Russia, he decided it was time to pack up his mementos and ship them to a new home he purchased in Grand Junction, CO.
“I had moved on to Moscow, but the shipping company came to the home in Kazakhstan and loaded everything up.”
Several months later, Michael was playing golf in Moscow when he received a telephone call.
“They immediately started to ask all sorts of funny questions, such as ‘What was in the shipment,’ ‘Was I shipping anything that is radioactive,’ and ‘If I had a government license to import radioactive materials.’ Of course, I didn’t have a license, no one gets a license for that.”
Apparently, Hugentobler’s shipping container had been placed with hundreds of other containers on a large boat that traveled from Kazakhstan and up the Volga River to the North Sea. The ship was in the middle of the Caspian Sea when it apparently set off a radioactive detection system.
At first, government officials knew only that something on the boat was radioactive. They narrowed it down to a portion of the boat, and then to the shipping container, then to Michael’s possessions, and finally to a single box.
“Initially, I was concerned that someone was trying to smuggle illegal materials in my shipping container,” said Hugentobler. “But eventually they figured out that it was coming from a single rock from my geologist’s box of rocks.”
The rock from the Dugout Ranch, which had traveled around the world for 15 years, was on the verge of becoming an international incident.
Michael realized that he would not be returning to Kazakhstan anytime soon.
“Of course, I knew it was radioactive,” said Michael. “The first thing I did after I got the rock was to test with the Geiger counter.”
“The big problem is that there is no known avenue for them to solve the problem,” said Hugentobler. “The Kazakhstan government just didn’t know what to do.
“I wasn’t going back to Kazakhstan, and government officials didn’t want to be exposed to the rock. It took several years before the issue was settled.”
Michael recounts the final journey of the Dugout Ranch rock. “Since the government officials didn’t want to touch the rock, I asked a friend and coworker if he would go get the rock and put it in a lead-lined box.
“As the only item in a single railcar, the box was transported across the country to the well. The disposal site is next to the landing site for Russian cosmonauts.
“They dug a 3,000-meter deep well, dropped the rock into the bottom and entombed it in tons of concrete.”
After sealing the well, this rock from the Dugout Ranch had reached its final resting place on the barren steppes of Kazakhstan.
The Dugout Ranch rock not only almost caused an international incident, it also triggered a health response within the company.
Hugentobler said he realized it was becoming an even bigger issue when he received an emergency telephone call from the Global Vice President of Health and Safety in his company.
“They wanted to come and get me with a LifeFlight team and take me back to the United States for emergency medical help.
“I told them it was a rock on my mantelpiece, and I do not need to be LifeFlighted half way across the earth.
“I had to tell them again and again to leave me alone. They didn’t seem to realize that southern Utah is unlike anywhere else on earth.”