Tom Till, Associated Press
Tailings, lower right, sit next to the Colorado River outside Moab. Efforts are ongoing to keep contaminated groundwater from reaching the river. Target dates for removal of the pile are 2019 or 2028.

By truck or train?

The Department of Energy wants to know which mode of transport people prefer for moving 16 million tons of uranium mill tailings piled up near Moab.

Elected leaders in Utah's red-rock country want to put safety first.

"There's no consensus on either method," said Wendee Ryan, spokeswoman for S&K Aerospace Inc., hired as a technical adviser to the DOE. "They feel it's important that the tailings be moved safely."

In addition to gathering public comments, DOE officials during a meeting Thursday in Moab will give an update of what's been going on at the 435-acre tailings site and at Crescent Junction, the DOE dump 30 miles away where EnergySolutions will be hauling the uranium waste.

A mixture of wet and dry tailings will be dumped into a 250-acre hole about 20 to 25 feet deep, a repository made up of a low permeability shale and designed to last at least 1,000 years. Upon completion, there will be a tailings pile rising above the hole about 20 feet that will be covered by clay, sand and rock. After 1,000 years of storage there, very little radium and uranium should be left, DOE project manager Donald Metzler said.

"It's very low-level radioactivity," Metzler said. "So, no one needs to be concerned about the radioactivity."

Over the past year workers completed a 20-mile water line from the Green River to Crescent Junction for use as dust suppression and to compact the tailings where they'll be dumped. A pond to store the water is under construction.

Last February crews finished removing contaminated soil from a 29-acre site that will become the loading area for transport activities near the pile. The actual mound of tailings takes up about 130 acres of space.

Efforts are ongoing to keep contaminated groundwater near the tailings from reaching the Colorado River, with about 110 million gallons since 2003 pulled from the dirty plume and stored on top of the tailings pile in an evaporation pond. Monitoring wells keep tabs on the plume's movement and levels of ammonia and uranium.

"That will be ongoing until the groundwater plume is no longer a problem," Ryan said. She said sampling so far has shown contaminants are being diluted to the point where they are indistinguishable from the rest of the river.

So, in theory, the groundwater problem is expected go away when the pile is gone.

EnergySolutions spokesman John Ward said target dates for removal completion are 2019 or 2028, with a best-case scenario of 2018 being floated by some optimists.

"It depends on how many trucks and trains you throw at it," Ward said. "It's how much money do they want to spend, and how fast do they want to move it?"

Last year EnergySolutions was awarded a $98 million contract to get the project going through the first phase, ending in 2011. To date, Congress has only funded a first phase. If the decision came soon to transport the tailings by truck, Ward said his company could start moving waste by this fall. The rail option would mean a start date in spring or summer 2009.

Watchdogs like Sierra Club's Mark Clemens have spoken out in favor of rail over putting a lot of trucks on U.S. 191, thereby jeopardizing the safety of travelers along that popular route for tourists. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, has accused the DOE of dragging its feet, pushing for the 2019 completion date. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, took credit earlier this year for an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that he said moved the completion deadline up from 2028 to Matheson's target date.

Ward said it will be up to the DOE, which earlier this year put the truck option on the table, to decide on using trucks or trains. Ryan said both methods will incorporate hard lids to avoid blowing dust during transport. EnergySolutions will be mindful of the dust during loading at the pile, situated close to Moab residents.

"Dust suppression is an integral part of the project," Ward said. "You're not going to see huge clouds of dust coming off the pile."

Investigators have been looking at gamma readings and evidence of contaminated residential lots which, so far, have resulted in the cleanup of a mess at one residence and at an unoccupied site adjacent to the tailings site. Ryan said blowing dust from the pile was the likely culprit on those two cases.

One plus, she noted, is that the pile, which became a DOE site in 2001, has never been "abandoned" and has been managed in some way to prevent the spread of contamination. The latest efforts along those lines included placing sandbags in some areas around the site. When spring runoff flows peaked last month, Ryan said water either didn't reach the sandbags or it was held back, preventing any interaction between flood flows and tailings.

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