Moab’s toxic uranium legacy is slowly – and carefully - being shipped away
from the banks of the Colorado River. KZMU’s Molly Marcello has more.
There’s a crowd gathered at a local park nestled in a red rock canyon, where the state highway into Moab crosses the Colorado River. There are state and congressional representatives, local elected officials, and interested community members. They’re mingling, enjoying refreshments and eating yellow cake. The cake – store bought – is a bit of a facetious nod to the reason for this celebratory gathering. A recent milestone – the removal of 10 million tons of toxic uranium tailings from the banks of the Colorado River.
SARAH FIELDS: Who would have thought way back in the early days when people were really fighting to get the tailings pile moved and going to NRC meetings, and DOE meetings, you never would have thought you’d have all these people congratulating themselves in the community on moving 10 million tons. And they seem to be really dedicated to getting this done.
Sarah Fields, executive director of nonprofit Uranium Watch, a group that advocates for the protection of public health and the environment from the impacts of uranium mining. She and many others gathered here, have a long history with this project.
The Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action site – better known to locals simply as the Moab Pile – is a leftover from the town’s Cold War uranium days, when the Moab was dubbed the ‘uranium capital of the world.’ When those mining boom days eventually went bust in the early 1980s, a 16 million ton scar of toxic tailings was left sitting next to the river, just downstream from Arches National Park.
The U.S. Dept of Energy eventually took over the management of the site, and Fields credits passionate community members and elected officials for convincing the federal agency to move the pile out of the floodplain.
SARAH FIELDS: The DOE pretty much from the beginning realized that if they decided to leave it in place they would be standing alone because the town, the city, most of the members of the community, the state, the EPA all said ‘move the pile.’
Workers began moving that pile in 2009. The tailings are carefully loaded into train cars, and sent 30 miles north where they’re unloaded into a disposal cell in the middle of the desert. With the 10 millionth ton gone, over 62 percent of the pile has been moved, which means many Moabites could see completion in their lifetimes. Grand County Council Member Mary McGann.
MARY MCGANN: It’s an environmental hazard. We have a huge flood, that’s not good. We have the Matheson Wetlands right across…It’s an environmental hazard and we need to remove it from the banks of Colorado River. And then turn it into a wonderful place for people of Grand County and everybody that visits here.
McGann and other local elected officials have year after year lobbied the DOE to allocate more funding to the project. Unlike some cleanup sites under the Office of Environmental Management, officials say the completion of the Moab project is within reach, perhaps just over a decade away.
During her remarks, McGann described growing up in Moab in the 1950s and 60s when Grand County fully embraced the uranium industry.
McGann’s own father was the superintendent of the uranium mill responsible for creating the Moab pile. McGann says at the time, most people in Moab were largely unaware of the health and environmental hazards of the uranium industry.
MARY MCGANN: I mean literally, it sounds silly, we were very naïve, we were very naïve. And it was not long before my dad passed away he was getting word that this was not safe. And I remember him coming home really upset with a Geiger counter and going through our house and finding all the uranium and feeling really remorse(ful) that he had exposed his children to this. I think he realiz(ed) that without malice, they had made a mistake. When you make a mistake you fix it, and that’s what we’re doing.
Although her father helped build the pile, McGann told attendees that she, along with the help of many others, will continue tearing it down.
Molly Marcello / KZMU