Moab celebrates moving of uranium-tailings pile |

Moab celebrates moving of uranium-tailings pile

Nancy Lofholm
The Denver Post

MOAB ” Moab began the last chapter of its nuclear arms-race story Monday as work officially began to move 130 acres of uranium tailings that have marred the majestic landscape and scared those who live downwind and downstream.

The start of the project, made possible by federal stimulus money, was cause for celebration in a Utah town that has swung from providing uranium for bombs to offering world-famous trails for outdoor recreationalists.

It was also heralded all the way to California because of the toxic pile’s proximity to the Colorado River and the potential that a flood could carry the tailings downriver. That would affect the drinking water of 25 million people.

“This is a big deal,” stressed Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman as he pointed at the 130 acres of tailings that jut 94 feet high from the valley floor.

Huntsman and other officials backslapped congratulations, ate cake and handed out commemorative coins while the growl and clank of trucks signaled that removal of the 16 million tons of tailings had already begun. Trains last week began hauling the waste 30 miles north to Crescent Junction, where it will be contained in a cell. It will take 10 to 20 years with daily hauling to fill the cell.

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“Fifty years ago, nobody thought twice in terms of what they were doing putting tailings here. Now, this area is emerging as a premiere destination for premiere recreation,” said Huntsman, who showed up for the event with mountain bikes hanging from a rack on his sport utility vehicle.

The removal of the pile that is both an eyesore and a health concern has been argued about, been delayed and languished in a funding vacuum for decades. The project was finally kick-started with $104 million in federal stimulus money.

The infamous pile dates to 1952, when a down-on-his-luck geologist named Charlie Steen found the largest deposit of high-grade uranium ore that had ever been discovered in the United States. Moab quickly became a uranium boomtown, and Steen built the Uranium Reduction Co. along the Colorado River to extract the processed “yellowcake” uranium much in demand then by the Atomic Energy Commission.

In the pell-mell Cold War race for bomb-making materials, an unlined bowl was bulldozed along the river to contain the waste. The Atlas Corp. bought the mill in 1962 and operated it sporadically until 1984. Cleanup talks began, but the Denver-based Atlas Corp. declared bankruptcy in 1998.

By then, the pile had become a huge environmental headache. Atlas covered it with a foot of clean dirt in 1995 to stop radon-laced dust from blowing through Moab. But the pile was still leeching contaminants such as selenium, ammonia, uranium and arsenic into the river just 750 feet away.

The Department of Energy took over the site in 2001 and started the complicated process of deciding how to carry out a cleanup. One option was to leave it on site and cover it with a better cap. The other options involved moving it. The Crescent Junction site was chosen four years ago.

Since then, 133 million gallons of contaminated groundwater have been pulled from the pile to stop the leeching into the river, said Don Metzler, federal manager for the project, estimated to cost at least $450 million.

Steve Creamer, chief executive of EnergySolutions, the Salt Lake City-based company that has been awarded the contract to move the pile, said the ultimate cost will depend on what kind of surprises are found in the tailings.

The old mill is buried in it, along with equipment and outbuildings. He said they also expect to find barrels of toxics.

“Anything short of Jimmy Hoffa won’t be a surprise,” Creamer said.

Kammy Wells grew up in Moab and watched the pile grow and eclipse the view of the valley over the 28 years the mill was in operation. Even though her father made his living working there, she said she is glad to see it go. She is director of the Moab Chamber of Commerce and fields calls from visitors worried about whether they are breathing radioactive dust.

She came to the site Monday to celebrate, not just for the relief to the tourism economy and the addition of as many as 200 jobs as the project gears up.

She wanted to see the work for herself.

“Honestly,” she said, “we thought this would be something shoveled aside and forgotten.”

Nancy Lofholm: 970-256-1957 or

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