Just north of Moab, along the Colorado River, are 130 acres of radioactive uranium tailings, which are being relocated by rail to a permanent disposal site near I-70. One thing the ambitious clean-up didn't count on was an unending string of severe weather events.
The tailings pile is in open-heart surgery and crawling with earth-moving equipment. Opening up the pile has led to higher-than-expected readings of gamma rays, radon gas, and radioactive dust. But federal and county watchdogs say the increased radiation has been confined to the site and is still well below federal clean-up guidelines.
"We’ve only had the site for ten years, but these weather extremes are something that, each time we really haven’t dealt with," says Don Metzler, who is overseeing the clean-up for the Department of Energy. "The winter of ’10, we had snow on the ground for three months. People in Moab said they’d never seen it like that. And now we’re going into one of the driest spells we’ve had in decades around here."
In the last 2 years the pile has also been pelted by uncharacteristic high-wind dust storms, sometimes bringing dust all the way from Arizona. And then, in the middle of a drought, there's flooding. Lee Shenton is a Moab engineer who monitors the clean-up for Grand County. He says, "They were caught a little bit by surprise by the level of the flooding last year. You know last year it peaked at over 48,000 and this year peaked at 6,000."
With flows in both the Colorado and Green Rivers down dramatically, the clean-up crew is now hard-pressed to find enough water for dust control and compacting. Metzler says last year's flooding was a temporary set-back for efforts to build artificial wetlands to buffer the pile from the river.
"Last year the Colorado River got so high that it came right to the toe of the tailings pile. There was so much water, and the interesting thing is that it stayed high for three months. And so I think that’s another extreme weather condition where we have to anticipate this can happen in the future."
Extreme weather also has an extreme effect on workers out on the pile, who are swathed in protective clothing and gear:
"We know that about 8 years ago it got to 117 one day, we had three days of 115, and maybe three more days of 113. And we know from two winters ago, it can get real cold. I mean, we probably never originally thought it would get down to minus 25 Fahrenheit at night for a week or two. And it did in the winter of ’10."
In the winter, if tailings are left for too long in their containers, they freeze up by the time they reach the disposal site. "Almost like an ice cube," says Metzler, "And you know, trying to get the ice cubes out of the old-style trays?
The Department of Energy is allowing unprecedented public access to a uranium clean-up site: a new river trail will soon allow bicyclists to skirt the tailings to get on scenic Potash Road. And, it's likely that the feds will provide Arches National Park with a cleaned-up parcel for a park-and-ride lot for bus riders.