Moab uranium cleanup hits milestone

Aug 2, 2013

The Moab uranium cleanup is meant primarily to allay the concerns of downriver users of Colorado River water. But will the river ever become pristine again alongside the tailings site? Jon Kovash reports.

About 40 percent of the uranium tailings have been scooped up and shipped by rail to a permanent containment site. At the current pace it will take 12 years to finish the job. But also important to the cleanup are eight extraction wells that pull contaminants out of the groundwater. Last week the Department of Energy announced that so far, 4,000 pounds of uranium, and 785,000 pounds of ammonia, have been extracted from beneath the tailings.

Cleanup continues at this Moab uranium tailings site.
Credit Jon Kovash

Don Metzler is the chief scientist and director of the cleanup. I found him at the Moab Diner, where he was having lunch with visiting scientists from other cleanup sites in the country.

"But then because of those early years of the milling, there’s a lot of contaminated groundwater," he explained. "We put a big dent in that these last ten years with our interim measures. But now the question is, how long do we keep those measures going? And what those measures are: we’re extracting out the contaminated groundwater as we capture it; and we evaporate it up on the pile. We’re also injecting clean river water, right next to the river, adjacent to the pile, to create a hydraulic barrier to prevent some of the contaminants still left in the groundwater from getting into the river. And then thirdly we have a lot of native plants going, willows, cottonwoods, that now are getting their roots down into this ammonia."

The Moab cleanup is being studied for its cost effectiveness: Metzler says it costs only ten cents to treat each gallon of groundwater. 200 million gallons have been treated so far. But how clean will the end result be, 12 years from now?  

"The goal is to protect the river, to keep the river clean and to keep the river protected," Metzler added. "It’s not so much that we have to clean the groundwater back to pristine conditions, because that groundwater is not being used as a drinking water aquifer.

"Once an aquifer is contaminated, you know it’s hard to get it back to absolute, pristine conditions. What we can do is get it close to perfect, and to get it to perfect though, to absolute pristine conditions the way it was before, takes many, many decades."

Metzler says exhaustive sampling by the DOE has shown that uranium and ammonia are the only significant contaminants at the site, and that, contrary to previous fears, the contamination has never spread to wetlands across the river. Reporting from Moab, this is Jon Kovash for UPR News.