Southeastern Utah’s billion dollar bonanza

by Buckley Jensen

On May 3, the removal of the 16 million ton uranium mill tailings pile north of Moab officially began.

Politicians, community leaders, representatives of all the companies and governmental agencies involved and concerned citizens gathered to applaud the occasion.

Governor Jon Huntsman was the key-note speaker. The event was front-page news in both Salt Lake City newspapers and others across the nation.

This billion-dollar event is important to San Juan County because many of the hundreds of workers who will toil there live in San Juan County.

While Grand County is obviously the major beneficiary, San Juan will realize millions of dollars in wages paid and services rendered to the project.

Despite the enormous cost, almost everyone agrees that it is a good idea to safely dispose of the 16 million tons of contaminated waste. The radioactivity in the pile is not as dangerous as the heavy metals and chemical residuals from decades of uranium milling which are seeping into the ground water and leeching into the Colorado River.

Experts say that a thousand year flood could potentially wash some of the pile into the river and contaminate water for the 30 million people who live downstream in Arizona and California.

It has taken more than 20 years to decide which method of clean-up would be used. When the massive project was finally passed by Congress, it was feared that, due to funding, it would take until 2029 to do the job.

However, in President Obama’s stimulus package an additional $108 million of funding was added to that already available. Officials say up to 150 additional workers will be hired and the job will be completed by 2019.

Of course the actual completion date hinges on future appropriations, economics, and the mood of the administration in power.

The Potash Road runs just west of the pile. Anyone can pull off the road and observe the process from that vantage point, which is above the pile and offers an excellent view of what is going on.

In a nutshell, here is what happens: Giant track backhoes load huge trucks with soil. Those trucks then drive to other areas atop the pile and dump their loads. Another crew spreads the sometimes wet gunk around so that it can dry out. When dry, it is pushed back in to piles. Another crew loads the now dry dirt into specially made steel containers at a central location.

Those containers are sealed and loaded onto trucks, and hauled about half a mile up a steep incline high on the west cliffs to the rail loading facilities. There, the sealed containers are off-loaded by a huge moving gantry crane and placed on rail cars. Two containers fit on each rail car and a total of 88 containers constitute a fully loaded train.

Once a day, the train travels 30 miles to Crescent Junction to the permanent repository. It isnearly as difficult to see the repository as it is to gain access to Fort Knox, but it can be done with patience and a press pass.

The hole that has been dug in the desert averages 25 feet deep and the first phase covers 40 acres.

More than 2.5 million yards of earth are stacked around in neat piles to cap the tailings and create flood barriers to protect the repository after it is filled and sealed. The grave will be enlarged as needed over the years.

In a corner of that vast “hole”, a string of trucks each haul a single sealed container from the railroad about half a mile away. Each truck backs up to movable concrete barriers and dumps its load. Bulldozers then spread the material one-foot deep and roll over it several times for maximum compaction. The trucks take the empty containers to an area where they are washed and put back on the train for the return trip to Moab.

Water is brought to the site in a 27-mile pipeline from the Green River and is pumped to a large, lined reservoir.

This project will probably be the largest economic stimulus in southeast Utah for years to come. Compared to the mostly tourist level wages available to workers in the Moab area, these jobs pay considerably better, offer better benefits, provide year around employment and will continue for many years.

(Editor’s note: For Buckley’s ruminations on the cleanup project, see the article here.)

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