The uranium tailings field outside Moab, Utah covers 130 acres and rises as high as 90 feet.
Over the course of almost 30 years, a uranium mill in southeastern Utah produced 16 million tons of radioactive tailings that have become a threat to the drinking water of millions of people in four states. Now, $108 million in Recovery funds is significantly aiding the effort to remove the threat to a secure location.
Tailings are the residue left after ore is processed. The mill just outside Moab processed uranium ore for nuclear weapons and power, leaving behind not only the tailings but also other heavy metals covering 130 acres and rising to as much as 90 feet in some places – and only 750 feet from the banks of the Colorado River.
Though the level of radioactivity is relatively low and a foot of soil was placed as an interim cover on the hazardous material, environmental danger still exists. The property is vulnerable to river flooding, violent cloudbursts, and high winds. Also, contaminants leach into the ground water, which can drain to the Colorado--a source of drinking water to 22 million people in Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California.
In April 2009, the Department of Energy (DOE) began transferring the tailings from the defunct mill to a secure storage facility in Crescent Junction 30 miles north. Moving the first one million tons took eleven months. But the infusion of Recovery funds, which began in May 2010, has allowed DOE and local officials to hire more than 200 workers and buy additional heavy equipment. Officials say they expect to transfer the next one million tons in five months.
DOE was originally loading about 50,000 tons of tailings a month into sealed containers for railroad transport to Crescent Junction. But the Recovery funds covered the cost of a second gantry crane, which lifts the containers onto the train beds. The money also allowed authorities to run 10 trains per week with 136 containers per train instead of the four trains with 88 containers they had been running.
"The funding from the Recovery Act allowed us to accelerate our cleanup efforts and add new jobs, so the community is seeing two major benefits," said Donald Metzler, director of the project.
The Moab site is only 750 feet from the Colorado River. (click to enlarge)
In addition to removing the tailings, DOE installed 42 ground-water extraction wells to prevent discharge of contaminants into the Colorado River. To date, these wells have pumped up more than 150 million gallons of ground water, which was piped it into an evaporation pond, from which 643,000 pounds of ammonia and 2,800 pounds of uranium were eventually extracted and secured.
Since 2002, DOE has received a total $164 million to clean up the Moab mill. Based on that level of funding, expected completion date is 2025. If DOE continues to receive the additional Recovery funding of $108 million, the agency says it could finish the project by 2019.
Photos: the Department of Energy
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