Thursday, July 24, 2014

Moab UMTRA Removal and Remediation Job May Be Larger Than Previously Thought


In May 2014, The Moab Pile is reportedly 41% smaller than when remediation began in 2009 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Moab UMTRA Removal and Remediation Job May Be Larger Than Previously Thought

Since May 2009, I have published eight articles regarding the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project (UMTRA). In 2005, radioactive and chemical laden soil from the former Atlas Minerals Corp. uranium mill towered ninety-feet high along the Colorado River at Moab. At that time, DOE announced that 11.9 million tons of radioactive tailings would move thirty miles to a secure burial site near Crescent Junction, Utah.


See Progress Removing Nuclear & Chemical Waste at the Moab Pile


In February 2014, DOE announced that contractors had removed and transported 6.5 million tons, or forty-one percent of the total tailings pile. If the 6.5 million tons removed equals forty-one percent of the tailings, then somehow the Moab Pile had expanded from 11.9 million to 16.2 million tons. With no new material added, and 6.5 million tons removed, the original size of the Moab Pile had somehow expanded by thirty-six percent.

U.S. Highway 191 and the Moab Tailings Pile as seen in October 2006 from the Arches National Park Entrance Road - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Moab is a magical place, but since no one is creating new dirt, the growth of 4.3 million tons at the tailings pile is a Moab mystery. With such vagaries appearing in official DOE documents, there should be a better accounting of how much material there is yet to remove. At current rates of transport, the DOE expects a complete the removal of contaminated material by about 2025. If we take projected annual shutdowns of the federal government into account, the project timeline stretches out to Friday April 13, 2029.

Prior to the completion of its charter, Moab UMTRA expects to excavate and remove all contaminated material from the site. The problem with that scenario is that no one knows how deep or wide the plume of contaminated water and saturated soil actually is. If the weight of contaminated tailings grew by 4.3 million tons in the first nine years of the project, what is to keep it from growing an equal amount in the next nine years?

By 2008, DOE engineers were constructing the tailings transfer facility at the Moab Pile - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)If we look at the underlying hydrology, there are two major influences on water flow and ground saturation at the UMTRA site. First is the once-mighty Colorado River. As the river swings through an arc at Moab Canyon, the tailings pile lies on the outside of that bend. During flood years, such as 2011 and to a lesser degree 2014, hydrological pressure pushes Colorado River water into the lower reaches of the Moab Pile. At the same time, the Moab Wash brings both surface flow and underground percolation downstream from the sand-filled canyon near the main entrance at Arches National Park.

In an ideal world, the hydrological pressure from the Colorado River would cancel out the subterranean flow from the Moab Wash watershed. In the real world, a well field located between the tailing pile and the river attempts to extract and purify groundwater before it enters the Colorado River. As of By September 2009, containers of nuclear and hazardous waste were moving from the Moab Pile to Crescent Junction, thirty miles away by rail - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)February 2014, the wells have extracted four hundred tons of ammonia and almost two tons of radioactive uranium. During low water periods, technicians inject fresh water into the wells in an attempt to maintain stasis between the two competing flows.

If the contaminated water and soil at the Moab Pile run deeper than current optimistic estimates, adding an additional 4.3 million tons to the excavation project is possible. If that turns out to be true, then the project is currently only one third complete, not the forty-one percent touted in recent DOE announcements. If scouring the Moab Wash watershed requires digging a huge hole where the waste tailings now stand, the entire character of the project might change.

By October 2010, DOE contractors were making progress in removing some of the sixteen million tons of hazardous and nuclear contaminated tailings from the Moab Pile - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Relying on the optimistic DOE projections, Moab and Grand County have created what they call a Community Vision Plan for the site. The Community Vision Plan, as currently formulated, includes a railroad station, transit center, bicycle and walking trails, a community park, federal offices, an ice rink, an event center and undetermined commercial uses.

Although the UMTRA site comprises 474 acres, 171 of those acres are in the floodplain. The contaminated tailings currently take up 104 acres. Highway and other easements remove 102 acres from potential development, as do twenty-nine additional acres of steep slopes. If the 104 acre Moab Pile becomes the new Moab Pit, that would leave 65 acres of developable land.

In May 2011, flooding along the Colorado River at Moab breached a low-lying section of nuclear and hazardous waste at the Moab Pile -  Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Despite local government resolutions to the contrary, the DOE is not obligated to cede even one acre of the UMTRA site to Grand County. With the uncertainties over long-term federal funding, the amount of remediation required and the tendency for such programs to balloon in both size and cost, alternatives to the “Community Myopia Plan” seem prudent.

As of 2014, we have at least eleven or more years until site remediation is completed. Even at that, there may be a 104-acre pit where the Moab Pile now stands. Assuming that 4.3 million tons of clean fill-dirt does not become available at the site, planners for the DOE, Moab and Grand County should include the potential for a new Moab Pit in their visionary plans.

In May 2011, the Colorado River is shown near the top of its banks at the Moab Pile. Within days, much of the flat area in this picture was inundated by floodwater - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)From the beginning of the UMTRA project, it was my contention that flood protection at the site should take precedence over removal of contaminated material. Ignoring my pleas and the paleoflood studies that substantiated them, DOE continued full speed ahead with their waste removal project. In the spring of 2011, DOE suffered public embarrassment when Colorado River floodwater penetrated part of the Moab Pile. After the 2011 flood, DOE took measures to lessen the potential for flooding at the site. Today, it still relies on simple pumping of groundwater through easily flooded wells to keep ammonia and uranium laden waste out of the Colorado River.

Upon final removal of the waste tailings, DOE has no announced plans for protecting the UMTRA site. Protection for the new Moab Pit and the proposed public amenities are absent from the clouded Visionary Plan, as well. Rather than rushing headlong to completion of waste removal, the DOE should shift In May 2013, a trip from Arches National Park to Moab allowed motorists to see part of the town over the diminishing Moab Pile - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)its focus to the long-term protection and potential uses of this unique recreational resource.

If left to the devices of nature, the new Moab Pit might fill itself with a mixture of contaminated groundwater and floodwater from the river. In order to prevent such an ecological disaster, DOE should create a cofferdam along the Colorado River. If properly constructed, the new cofferdam could hold back the river and allow complete removal of contaminated materials from behind the dam.

If architects of the cofferdam think ahead, they could design a floodgate into the structure. In 2029 or beyond, DOE could then transfer the UMTRA site to Grand County. Although I will be over eighty years old at the time, when the Moab Pit becomes the new 104-acre Grand County Marina, I hope to attend the ribbon cutting ceremony.

Previous Moab Pile articles, in chronological order:

2009 - A Happy Ending for the Moab Pile?

2009 - Moab, Utah - The Potash Road

2011 - Moab Pile - Here Comes the Flood

2011 - Moab Pile - The Mill Tailings Train

2011 - Moab Pile - Countdown to Disaster

2011 - Nuclear Dust Storm Hits Moab, UT

2011 - Toxic Purple Dust Covers Moab, UT

2013 - The True Cost of Mineral Extraction




Monday, July 14, 2014

Each Spring, I Hear The Call - And Then It's Moab Time


Interstate I-70 begins near historic Cove Fort, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Each Spring, I Hear The Call - And Then It's Moab Time

In May 2014, I departed Mesquite, Nevada, heading for Moab, Utah, 375 miles to the northeast. Normally, it is an easy trip north on Interstate I-15 and then East on I-70. At Crescent Junction, I would hit U.S. 191, and then head south toward Moab. According to Google Maps, the highway trip should take five hours and thirty minutes. Since I was pulling our Springdale travel trailer, I added two hours to the estimate.

At Cove Fort, Utah, I-70 East begins its climb into the Fish Lake National Forest - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Near its start at Cove Fort, Utah, I-70 traverses parts of both the Fish Lake National Forest and the Manti La Sal National Forest. Along that route, the mountain passes exceed 7,250 feet elevation. After transiting through both national forests, I-70 presents itself as a slow-motion rollercoaster ride. The culmination is a twisting descent down the east side of the San Rafael Swell.

Combined, my Nissan Titan truck and its trailer weigh 11,000 pounds. With a twenty percent horsepower-loss at 7,250 feet, the 5.6 liter V-8 in my pickup was averaging just over six miles per gallon. The only way to go faster was to downshift into second gear while ascending. At that throttle setting, the In May 2014, there was ample fresh snow in the Manti La Sal National Forest along I-70 - Click for a larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)engine runs at over 5,000 RPM, increasing both gasoline consumption and engine wear.

The only sensible solution was to slow down and not push my rig so hard. In doing so, I finessed the gears, rather than the power to keep my average speed above fifty-five miles per hour. Another consideration was the hundred-mile distance to the next service station, in Green River, Utah. In case of emergency, I carry several gallons of gasoline in an approved container. I rarely have to use my reserve fuel, but it offers peace of mind when I visit remote locations.

Once I reached Crescent Junction, I had only thirty-three miles to go on U.S. The Floy off-ramp, just west of Crescent Junction celebrates a settlement that disappeared without a trace in the early twentieth century - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Highway 191 South. In Moab, my final destination was the Moab Rim Campark, at the south end of town. Before I reached Moab, I had a brief side trip to take. On a railroad siding near the turnoff to Utah Highway 313, I hoped to locate an old friend. Like an old-time prospector’s affection for his burro, I had become fond of the Moab Burro.

Although it is not an animal, the Moab Burro is a fascinating example of twentieth century railroad construction equipment. Built by the Cullen Friestadt Company, the Moab Burro is a self-propelled railroad crane capable of pulling other rail cars, lifting 12,500 pounds and swiveling on its turret 360 degrees. On my previous visit, the Moab Burro lay idle and alone on a railroad siding of the Union Pacific Railroad Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone, looking for the missing Moab Burro at Seven Mile - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Potash Branch Line. In fact, the crane and its flatcar-tender had been on that siding for so long, Google Maps had snapped its picture from space.

That day, I was not so lucky. As I approached Seven Mile, I could see that both the Potash Branch Line and its siding lay deserted. Since the Moab Burro is a functioning piece of railroad maintenance-of-way equipment, Union Pacific Burro Crane No. BC-47 was probably elsewhere in the High Southwest. My hope of photographing Plush Kokopelli and Coney the Traffic Cone with the Moab Burro were dashed. Instead, I had to settle for pictures of my unlikely superheroes sitting on the empty track at Seven Mile.

The new U.S. Highway 191 Colorado River Bridge shows high water at Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)If any reader spots the Moab Burro elsewhere on the Union Pacific network, please take a photo and send it to me via email. If received here, I will then post any newly found images of Union Pacific BC-47, also known as the Moab Burro.

After leaving Seven Mile, I headed straight for Moab. While crossing the Colorado River, I noted that it was flowing higher than it had in the past few years. If the increased flow originated in a heavy snow pack on the Western Slope of the Colorado Rockies, that could be a good sign for Colorado River health. If the flow came from a rapid snowmelt upstream, it might be just a “flash in the pan”, soon to subside. As it turned out, 2014 would be a good water flow year in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

In May 2014, Lake Powell's Wahweap Marina, Near Page, Arizona lay far below its historical elevation - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)According to the USGS interactive website, on May 15, 2014, the Colorado River was flowing at about 10,000 cubic feet per minute (CFM) at Moab. By June 3, the river peaked at about 37,500 CFM, which was more than twice the sixty-three year average. Downstream, Lake Powell reached its 2014 low of 3574' elevation around April 15. By July 10, 2014, the lake was peaking at 3,609' elevation. That rise of thirty-five feet put the lake level ten feet higher than on the same date in 2013.

A six foot rise might not sound like much, but with Lake Powell's immense surface area, that represents almost an eight percent gain in water volume. As of July 10, 2014, the Lake Powell watershed had mixed statistics. The snow-pack was at forty-seven percent of normal and the total precipitation was at ninety-six percent of normal. A vigorous Monsoon in early July had
Four identically prepared Shelby Cobra 289 sports cars head on to U.S. Hwy. 191 in Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)added greatly to the total precipitation. Still, the lower mass of the snow-pack suggested lower flows for the remainder of the year. 

Soon after passing over the Colorado River, I saw a rare sight in Moab. As I waited at the Highway 128 stoplight, four identical 1960’s Shelby Cobra 289 sports cars pulled on to U.S. 191. From my vantage point, I could not see if the Cobras were original or if they were among the ubiquitous replicas manufactured over the past forty years. After snapping a picture of each Cobra, I followed them toward Moab. Soon, they pulled off for an early dinner at the venerable Sunset Grill. I wondered how the stiff suspension of each Cobra would fare on the long, washboard driveway that leads up to the restaurant.

At the Moab Rim Campark a young couple poses in front of an RV graphic depicting the Yosemite Valley - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Soon, I arrived at the Moab Rim Campark, where I stay when in Moab. Owners Jim and Sue Farrell always offer old-fashioned Moab hospitality to all who stay there. As I pulled in to the RV Park, I noticed a young couple standing at the rear of their rental RV. Emblazoned across the stern of their RV was a high definition image of Yosemite Valley. With their permission, I took several photos of the couple and the Sierra Nevada scene. As I shot the photos, I zoomed-out to show that they were in Moab, not in Yosemite. To see the full scene, please click on their image.

Reflecting now on that meeting, I remembered that the young woman had looked up toward me and into the sun. She said, “I can’t see, so tell me when to smile”. Later, after examining the photos, I realized that the woman was A view of Moab's La Sal Range from the Moab Rim Campark - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)blind. In my experience, blind people often see more of our universe than many sighted people can. I only wish I could have explained to her the double meaning created by their standing in front of the Sierra Nevada Range and Moab’s La Sal Range, all at the same time.

For years, I have witnessed and studied various dimensional anomalies in and around Moab. To witness a young blind woman standing in two places simultaneously was an event on par with witnessing a plasma flow etched across the morning sky in Moab. Smiling about my good fortune to witness such a sight that day, I realized that as of that moment, I was on Moab Time.

A large bird of prey seems to glide along the peaks of the La Sal Range at Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Returning from Yosemite to the Moab of my contemporaneous three-dimensional time-space reality (3DTSR), I looked beyond the young couple to the snowfields of the La Sal Range. Fresh snow, which fell only a day before my May 15 arrival dusted the lower slopes of the great mountain range. The brilliance of white snow against the blue sky was spectacular. Looking at my photos later on, I realized that one shot captured an image of a large bird of prey, frozen in time within that infinite sky.

My first trip to Moab was in the summer of 1965. After leaving there, I assumed that it was a magical place, which I would never see again. Decades later, I read about the Moab Pile and its nuclear threat to life along the At dusk, a full moon rises over the snow-capped peaks of the La Sal Range at Moab, Utah, May 2014 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Colorado River. Upon returning to Moab in the early 2000’s, all of the magic and many new threats to the environment came to me. With Big Oil, Big Gas, Big Potash and Big Tar Sands all ganging up on Moab and Grand County, the soul of that magical place might easily be lost.

During my current visit, I hoped to join others and sway Moab toward a more positive outcome.