Removal of tailings starts by rail as Moab waits
The first trainload of uranium tailings left Moab on April 20, marking the beginning of a massive cleanup effort at the Cold War-era Atlas Uranium Corp. mill site north of Moab.
"These first mill tailings shipments (which started April 20) will be used as an additional operational check to ensure all equipment and processes are working in a manner that protects the environment and emphasizes our focus on worker safety," said Donald Metzler, the Department of Energy's Moab federal project director.
After May 4, full operations will commence with trains of 88 containers, running each evening Monday through Thursday. Sixteen million tons of radioactive tailings that now sit on the banks of the Colorado River just north of town will be moved to a permanent repository near Crescent Junction, about 30 miles north of Moab.
The project is slated to receive $108 million in federal economic stimulus funds. That funding will allow the project to increase the capacity of each train by 50 percent as soon as 2010 instead of by 2012 as originally planned, Metzler has said. And it will mean that the project will hire as many as 150 more workers by the end of this year, he said.
For the remainder of this year the project will work four 10-hour shifts, Monday through Thursday. A train with 22 cars hauling four containers each will leave the site about 4 p.m. on those days. Once the project is expanded the train will grow to 34 cars hauling 136 containers. The additional workers will work three 12-hour shifts, Friday through Sunday, according to Metzler.
An added benefit from the stimulus package, Metzler said, is that it may pay for building an overpass across the Potash Road so that motorists will not have to stop for the trucks hauling the containers from the site to the railroad siding.
Efforts to convince the federal government to relocate the contaminated waste have been ongoing in Grand County for more than 20 years. The Atlas uranium mill, originally built in 1956 by uranium miner Charlie Steen, closed in 1984. In the years following its closure, area citizens and government officials raised concerns about the possible health and safety effects the toxic material could have on the local community.
With significant help from congressional delegations from California, Nevada and Arizona, Utah's congressional representatives managed to convince the federal government to shift responsibility for the site from the Nuclear Regulation Commission to the DOE in 2001.
In 2005, the DOE determined the tailings should be removed, not capped in place, and that the preferred method would be by rail.
After much controversy over the timing and hauling method, and a meeting with the public, DOE reaffirmed the decision to use rail instead of trucks last year.
The original DOE decision to move the tailings projected a completion date of 2028. Congressional action sponsored by Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah set a deadline of 2019. Metzler has made it clear that deadline can be met, but only if funding beyond that currently budgeted by Congress to the DOE becomes available. He has declined to say how much the one-time federal stimulus will actually accelerate the completion date.
DOE and EnergySolutions conducted analysis of the use of trucks in order to meet the 2019 deadline. Concerns for safety and impacts on U.S. 191, plus an overwhelmingly negative response from local residents at a public meeting, caused DOE to reaffirm its original decision to haul the tailings exclusively by rail.
"The preparations and coordination needed to haul the mill tailings by train has been a long process made possible through teamwork with our contractors, EnergySolutions and S&K Aerospace and a great deal of cooperation from Union Pacific Railroad. I would also like to thank the Moab community for its continued support of the project," Metzler said.
During the past year Metzler has emphasized not only safety for workers but also for the community. The project is thoroughly monitoring air quality at the tailings site, the disposal area, and in Moab and Spanish Valley. Results of the monitoring and analysis of it are regularly posted on the project website, www.gjem.energy.gov.
This week Grand County Attorney Happy Morgan urged county council members to lobby Utah's congressional delegation, EnergySolutions, and others, to fund a monitoring program at the site, to be conducted by the county.