Moab tailings cleanup reaches 5-year mark

Berms should help keep spring runoff from radioactive dirt

Published: Saturday, April 26 2014 3:43 p.m. MDT

Removal of 16 million tons of radioactive tailings near the banks of the Colorado River outside Moab began five years ago by the U.S. Department of Energy. The job is 42 percent complete and received additional funding to keep it on track to wrap up by 2025.

Amy Joi O'Donoghue

MOAB — The momentous mound of red, radioactive dirt just north of Moab is diminishing week by week, steadily eaten away by a federal removal and remediation project aimed at keeping the Colorado River safe from contamination.

This week marked the five year anniversary of when the U.S. Department of Energy began the $1 billion cleanup of the 16 million tons of tailings left over a legacy of uranium mining at the now defunct Atlas Mill.

The 130-acre site was leaching uranium and hazardous chemicals into the Colorado River, spurring contamination concerns for 30 million downstream users.

In 2009, an infusion of $108 million in federal stimulus money fast-tracked the project, accelerating the removal of the tailings to a disposal site 30 miles away at Crescent Junction.

"It is slowly getting there," said project manager Don Metzler. "It is on track and we feel good about that."

Metzler, whose supervision of the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action garnered national recognition in 2011, said the massive cleanup effort is now 42 percent complete.

"We have moved 6.7 million tons of the 16 million tons," he said. "We still have a lot to go."

The tailings are scooped and loaded into the beds of huge dump trucks and then poured into rail cars. A train leaves the site once a day, four days a week, traveling north to a specially-engineered disposal site at Crescent Junction.

Metzler said the annual funding of $35 million received a boost to $38 million, and the additional money will be used to further cover a section of the disposal cell.

"We do this in sequential steps. We are not going to wait until the entire project is over before we cover," he said.

Clay and rock material has been put on 40 acres and another 10 acres or so will also receive a protective fill.

Metzler is also in the process of implementing a flood control plan.

With spring runoff in full swing, the Colorado River has risen 2 feet in the past few weeks, Metzler said, and it expected to crest its banks in another 30 to 40 days.

Protective berms have been engineered to keep the river water away from the radioactive dirt, he added, and the project will be doing community outreach to keep residents informed of flood threats.

"We know that before June is over the river will flood portions of the well field and the revegetation, but we are much better prepared than in 2011" when the river flooded in an extraordinarily high water year, he said.

"We don't predict the flooding will be as significant, but we know it will be more than what we have seen in the last few years," he said. "The river will not get to the tailings, although it could get relatively close."

As Metzler readies for another week ahead with more truck loads of tailings destined for train cars headed to Crescent Junction, he said the difficulty is keeping monotony at bay for the site's 135 workers.

In March, the project logged 2 million safe work hours and Metzler wants to keep it that way.

"Our biggest challenge is working on the safety culture. It is very routine any more what we do, and we have to make sure that complacency never creeps into the work place and creates an unplanned event," he said. "We have to do the job better than it's previously been done and continue to keep that safety in the minds of everyone."

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16

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