Tailings cleanup project reaches milestone as flood waters pose possible problems
by Charli Engelhorn
staff writer
Jun 16, 2011 | 1532 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The U.S. Department of Energy hit a big milestone last week, reaching 4 million tons of tailings removed as part of the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) project. The DOE took responsibility for cleaning up the former Atlas uranium mill site in 2001, and work began in 2009. In that two-year period, work crews have now relocated 25 percent of the 16 million tons of contaminated waste to a permanent storage facility near Crescent Junction, about 30 miles north or Moab.

“The whole team, from the janitor to the general manager, is really proud of this accomplishment,” said Don Metzler, DOE federal project director for the project. “We did it safely and with a lot of quality. We couldn’t be happier.”

Metzler credits much of the project’s current success to the $108 million in federal stimulus money received as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. That infusion of funds enabled the hiring of 200 additional employees, which increased operating speed and production, Metzler said.

“We put our stimulus money to good use, and we had the best crew you could find,” said Metzler. “Every taxpayer can feel good about how that money was used.”

With the extra funding, project crews were able to run two shipments of tailings out a day, which nearly doubled their removal abilities.

However, because of new federal budget restrictions, additional funding is no longer available. Only $31 million in federal funds is slated for the UMTRA project for the 2011 fiscal year, returning work at the site to the original pace of one shipment, or 5,000 tons, a day. Two hundred employees will be laid off because money is not available to pay for the larger crew, Metzler said earlier this year.

At the same time that work crews and federal officials were celebrating progress at the site, concerns have arisen about possible complications that could arise due to recent flooding from high water levels along the nearby Colorado River.

According to Lee Shenton, Grand County liaison for the UMTRA project, the site has flooded in “a few areas.” Although most of the areas flooded are remediated zones clean of contaminates, floodwaters did reach the toe of the tailings pile on the south side Monday night, June 6, when the Colorado River flow rose to 40,000 cubic feet per second. More flooding occurred Wednesday, June 8, with water topping a low portion of the first berm protecting the contaminated area of the tailings pile. Three levels of berms stand between the tailings pile and the river.

“River water has not reached the tailings pile and we do not anticipate this occurring, even when the river peaks,” said Shenton. “If water does get in there, the contaminants will likely drop off in the low-flow areas closer to the tailings pile and settle before [contaminated material] reaches the river.”

Any contaminated water will be contained as the water recedes and treated as a contaminated material, said Shenton. The area will be reclaimed and worked back through the remediation process to clean it. Remediation involves removing a foot of soil at a time until a level is reached where significant contamination levels are not present.

One off-pile area between the old uranium mill and the river required a significant amount of soil remediation because of years of mill waste. About four to five feet of soil was removed, along with the tamarisk trees, leaving a trench-like area that significantly lowered the riverbank, according to Shenton. Although project staff raised the height of several low areas and berms, they anticipated some flooding, he said. The area flooded on May 30, much earlier than usual. However, because this area was already cleaned, there was no hazard of contamination.

Flooding also occurred across a new well field located between the river and the tailings pile. Eight of the 40 wells in that area were flooded and 10 more had water rise up the sides, Shenton said. The extent of possible contamination will not be known until the water recedes and well sites can be tested for radiation, Shenton said.

Metzler said it is possible that flooded areas may benefit from the water and help with the necessary revegetation.

“We’ll be watching the situation intently,” he said. “But I don’t see the flooding as a problem at all.”

Some damage is likely to have occurred to the Millsite Riverside Trail, a pedestrian and non-motorized trail currently being constructed along the river side of the UMTRA site. The trail was partially graded in some areas, but crews were not able to structurally stabilize the trail before the flooding. A berm was constructed to protect the last 20 acres of land that had been remediated for the bike path north of the Moab Wash.

“We see flooding in this area about every five years or so,” said Shenton. “We were prepared and have protected berms in place for all areas not yet remediated. We believe the water will begin to decrease soon and we will have few issues from the floods.”

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