“Life after the pile” - Moab ponders future uses of its uranium tailings site

May 20, 2013

The Moab uranium cleanup is expected to be completed in 2025, and then suddenly, the town will be 450 acres bigger. UPR’s Jon Kovash reports:

Wednesday evening about two dozen Moab residents gave their opinions on what can eventually be done with the uranium tailings and mill site, which is currently owned by the Department of Energy. Russ Von Koch chairs a local oversight committee for the cleanup.

"And now we’re kind of looking ahead to the future," he said. "What  could be really next? One of the questions that comes up is, well, what are you going to do with the site? And there’s not been a good answer yet."

Rock Smith, who heads the Moab BLM district, explained that the large site, alongside the Colorado River, does have some constraints.

"There are two flood plains, there’s Moab Wash, locally Bloody Mary Wash," said Smith. "Then there’s the Colorado River 100-year flood plain."

Also, the site contains significant wetlands, and currently has no municipal water or sewer. Smith said there are also inaccessible places that will be hard to clean up.

"There’ll be some areas that have remaining soil contamination, usually areas that the cost of remediation outweighs the associated risk reduction."

However Don Metzler, DOE’s project manager, said he plans by 2025 to produce a squeaky-clean site free of contamination.

After studying maps of the cleanup site, residents wrote down their suggestions, which were summarized by Saxon Sharpe, the vice-chair of the tailings oversight committee.

The BLM's Rock Smith answers questions about the Moab tailings site.
The BLM's Rock Smith answers questions about the Moab tailings site.
Credit Jon Kovash

"There’s kind of a green theme going on with all of this:  Open space was suggested, with minimal development," said Sharpe. "Wind farms, solar panels, all buildings being solar powered, a water feature just for birds and wildlife, paths for biking, walking, an electric bike station."

The idea being that the site would become a rebuke to the nuclear industry that created the mess and walked away. But some suggestions called for more conventional development.

"A recreational high-end resort with a golf course, a large city park, including amphitheater, ball park, picnic areas, public beach; a botanical garden with names of native plants, an outdoor concert venue was suggested, also RV parking could be in the area," Sharpe added.

The Moab tailings are being hauled away on the newly refurbished Union Pacific rail line, which passes Arches National Park and the cleanup site on its way to the potash mine downriver. It was inevitable that suggestions would include future passenger rail and freight rail terminals.

"If you could start up getting passengers on the train from Denver or Salt Lake City, they wanted to put their jeeps on the train to Moab," Sharp added.

So Moab still has about 12 years to come up with a plan, the only thing for sure being that things will look a lot different.

Also on Wednesday, the DOE confirmed that the opening of a bike trail through the cleanup site has been indefinitely postponed, due to heightened security concerns. This is Jon Kovash, reporting from Moab for UPR News.