To Move “The Pile” or Not to Move “The Pile”, that is the Question.
The Colorado River is currently one of the main drinking water sources for many parts of the southwestern United States and northwest Mexico. It has been recognized as “Americas West Nile” because it is so precious to so many of its varied users. Sixteen million tons of uranium laced toxic soil should be removed from the Colorado River banks to ensure the safe and continued use of drinking water, recreational and agricultural areas, and to ensure continued hydroelectric energy production along the waterway.
The mighty Colorado River flows through seven U.S. States, two Mexican states and provides drinking water for over 27 million people. It travels through some of the greatest National and State parks throughout several different states and is used by millions for a variety of recreational activities including boating, rafting, site seeing adventures, fishing to name but a few. It is also the habitat of many different types of wildlife, both in the river and along the banks and surround areas. Agricultural needs are also a part of this river, supplying water to some four million plus acres. The Colorado River is also used to generate hydroelectricity of more than twelve billion kWh each year.
In an article from the Denver Post, “a new study projects that all reservoirs along the Colorado River could dry up by 2057 because of climate change and overuse. A current 10-year drought along the Colorado River, which runs 1,450 miles from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California, is creating much anxiety, for many organizations and makes this incredible resource even more valuable.“(Finley)
“The Pile”, as it is known locally, sits on approximately 430 acres and consists of a pile of over 16,000,000 tons of “tailings”, or what is left over after uranium ore has been processed. Of those, 130 acres border the Colorado River. The entrance to Arches National Park is located less than 1 mile north of “the Pile” and Canyonlands National Park is located approximately 12 miles to the south and west. The water runoff from the Moab wash runs approximately 300 feet east of the tailings pile and then discharges into the Colorado River. The Moab city limits are just a stone’s throw away from the site boundaries (3 miles). This gives you an idea of how close this large pile of uranium mill tailings is to Moab.
As early as 1956, operations began to process uranium ore in this area; Moab, Utah. “To process this uranium Steen built the Uranium Reduction Company in 1956. By 1961 the facility, located on the shores of the Colorado River in Moab, Utah, required expansion in order to extract the yellowcake uranium that was in high demand by the Atomic Energy Commission. The wastes from the mill were slurried into an unlined pond on the floodplain of the river. When more capacity was needed to store the waste, a larger bowl was bulldozed to contain the radioactive materials. The Uranium Reduction Company continued to operate the mill until 1962 when the assets were sold to Atlas.” (Shenton)
In 1974 the process changed to a leaching method, which used acids and ammonia products. This continued through 1984. The mill was owned by several companies during those years. In 1984, the price of uranium ore dropped and the mill went on standby. Operations never resumed. From 1984 to 1997 decommissioning of the equipment and sampling of the ground water took place. In 1998 investigations revealed that the ground water was contaminated; the result of the chemicals used to process the uranium leaching into the Colorado River. A corrective action plan had to be developed. In 2001, the Department of Energy (DOE) took possession of the tailings pile and more ground water studies were conducted through 2005. Among other things, it was found to be causing drinking water contamination and endangering three different types of fish: the Colorado Pike Minnow, Boney Tail, and the Razorback Sucker. “The Pile” site is also located in the 100 year flood plan for this area, which will wash more of these contaminates down river if not moved.
“Subsequently, a number of government agencies participated in an on-site examination of the Atlas site on April 5, 1995, to determine appropriate sampling locations and protocols. Participants included the National Park Service (NPS), USF&WS, Utah Department of Wildlife Resources, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), NRC, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Based on input from the participating agencies, NRC prepared a sampling and analysis plan (Federal Plan) to better determine the effect of the mill site, if any, on the biota in the area and on the endangered fish habitats.” (US DOE GJ)
The Environmental Impact Statement was a major contributing factor in the decision that was finally made to remove the tailings and remediate the river banks. The Record of Decision was to relocate the pile and to perform ground water remediation activities.
This specific cleanup is part of the Uranium Mill Tailings Remediation Act which came about in 1978, specifically to track the cleanup activities of uranium mill tailings. It began with the DOE and then Congress passed the Uranium Mill Tailings Remediation Control Act (UMTRCA). This act gave the DOE the responsibility for the cleanup, disposal and control of all uranium mill tailings in approximately 10 states, 5,200 properties and 24 uranium mills. It also involves National Environmental Policy and the Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NRC), which oversees UMTRCA. The State of Utah and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) both play a large role in the effort to clean up contaminate that are currently leaching into the Colorado River, through ground water and surface water.
“The costs associated with this cleanup operation are estimated at 1,043 billion dollars and will continue through 2028, depending on funding. This is from a baseline summary document, and according to the Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management Grand Junction, Colorado Moab UMTRA Project Revision 4, February 2009.” (DOE Baseline, Page 4). However, the project also employs approximately 155 individuals at its current funding. This drives the local economy and provides long term, full time employment positions for many local residents.
In light of past decisions to locate uranium processing site on the banks of an important river, the current climate changes, and other factors, we are realizing just how important this water source is. As users and stewards, this reminds of the responsibility we have to care for this great resource. We are learning from past mistakes and working toward cleaning up these mistakes, so that future generations can enjoy all that the mighty, mighty Colorado River has to offer.
Shenton, Lee, “Moab Project Information”, Moab tailings.org, November 30, 2012. Web.30 November 2012
“United States Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management Grand Junction”, Colorado Moab UMTRA Project Revision 4, February 2009, Web.03 December 2012
“Environmental Impact Statement”, Moab, Utah, UMTRA Project. Gjem.energy.gov. Web.30 November 2012
Finley, Bruce “CU study warns of scarce water” Denverpost.com. July 22, 2009. Web.30 November 2012