MoabPile Early 2011

An undated photograph of the Colorado River crossing at Moab, Utah. The Atlas Uranium Mill and the Moab Pile would later appear in the foreground of this image.


View of the Colorado River, with UMTRA nuclear cleanup site at lower left - Click for map of UMTRA site (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 

Moab UMTRA Nuclear Site is Now On Flood-Watch

 

January 27, 2009 - During the Cold War years, the UMTRA project languished for lack of sufficient funding.
 
During heavy rain, the Moab Wash channels water toward the Moab Pile and the Colorado River. An aerial photo on the current UMTRA website shows the wash running toward the site. Both then and now, a subterranean stream passes under the site. As it does so, it carries hazardous materials to the Colorado River. Today, pumps near the river lift much of that contaminated water to the surface. Sprinklers then distribute it across the tailings, where it evaporates into the atmosphere.
 
By 2006, new studies showed a high potential for massive flooding along the Upper Colorado River. What had previously been called a '1000-year flood' might occur once in 300 years. The new 300-year flood might also be three The Moab Pile in April 2009. Click for image one year later (http://jamesmcgillis.com)times larger than the old 1000-year flood. Sediments from ancient floods along the river proved that a large spring flood could sweep much of the Moab Pile downstream. If so, its radioactive poisons would flow toward the Lower Colorado Basin. Suddenly, the prospect of Los Angeles and Phoenix becoming "ghost cities" seemed plausible.
 
During the George W. Bush administration, cleanup funds for the Moab Pile were sparse. At the time, the U.S. was fighting wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Unwilling to add further to the federal deficit, many Cold War era cleanups languished. Conventional wisdom said, "If a large flood is so rare, the odds are that it will not happen here in our lifetimes." 
 
Soon after President Obama took office, his administration funded cleanup of the Moab Pile. Then, as the economy faltered, the project received additional federal stimulus money. In April 2009, the first trainload of contaminated soil departed for a disposal site near Crescent Junction, Utah. By late 2010, larger waste containers and a second train each day promised even faster removal of the Moab Pile.
Nuclear waste container staging area at the Moab Pile - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis) 
In 2025, when UMTRA concludes its work, the long-running environmental disaster known as the Moab Pile will be gone. With almost fifteen years to go, I wonder what might happen if a 300-year flood hits the site prior to complete removal.  When asked that question, an UMTRA manager explained to me that flood protection at the site was already complete. Most of that work focused on sandbagging where the Moab Wash meets the river on the northern edge of the Moab Pile. As a temporary stopgap, workers had sandbagged to protect the well field adjacent to the Colorado River. That small project protected against a normal spring flood, but would do nothing to stop the potential ravages of a 300-year flood event.
 
Once the removal and transport work began, conventional wisdom reestablished itself. The current prevailing attitude at the UMTRA project is that, 'If we don't think about it, everything will be OK'. Removal and disposal of material continues, but will that effort 'beat the clock' against a 300-year flood event? Statistically, there is a five percent chance that a 300-year flood event will occur before UMTRA concludes. Even so, federal regulators and the private contractor continue to ignore the potential for flood damage at the UMTRA site.
Empty nuclear waste container being moved at UMTRA site, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
In recent years, large dust storms have become common occurrences in the Four Corners. The prospect of a regional dust storm rapidly melting heavy snowpack on the Colorado Plateau is real. In preparation for such an event, both UMTRA and its regulators should reassess the risk of flood damage at the site. A one-in-twenty chance that a flood will send any part of the Moab Pile downstream is too high a risk to take. The livelihood of fourteen million downstream residents may depend on protecting the Moab Pile during its removal.
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Union Pacific Railraod locomotives pull the uranium mill tailings train to the disposal site - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 

The "Train of Pain" Travels Thirty Miles from Moab to Crescent Junction

  

In April 2009, I was in Moab, Utah when the first mill tailings train departed the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) site. The train departed from a track running high along a ridge that overlooks the Moab Pile. Five days each week, a trainload of radioactive soil headed north on the Cane Creek Subdivision, better known as the Potash Branch. The destination is a disposal site, northeast of Brendel and Crescent Junction, Utah. In those early days of rail transport, there was no published train schedule. Before I could locate a schedule, it was time for me to leave Moab.
A plume of diesel train exhaust follows the uranium mill tailings special as it gains speed in the desert, near Canyonlands Field, Moab, Utah. - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
In October 2010, I returned to Moab, traveling south along U.S. Highway 191. As the road descended towards the entrance at Arches National Park, I looked ahead towards the ridge. There I saw two Union Pacific Railroad locomotives pulling a trainload of containers to the north. After noting the time, I made plans to return and photograph the train as it traveled toward the UMTRA disposal site in the desert.
 
Two afternoons later, I waited near Milepost 134 on Highway 191. From there, I could see the lead engine, a 2004 GE C44AC-CTE approaching from over a mile away. As it pulled the hill, the entire train disappeared behind the Redrock. Reappearing a minute later, the lead engine entered an "S" curve. If this were the old days, I would say that the engines appeared to be "building steam". As I stood and shot photos, the engines rapidly approached.
 
 
 
While standing near the edge of the railroad right of way, an unexpected plume of sound, heat and pollution blew me back from my position. After receiving that 8800-horsepower blast of old energy from the twin GE Evolution Series diesel locomotives, almost a minute passed before I could catch my breath. Still, as the parade of nuclear waste bins passed my position, I reflexively snapped more photos.
Lead locomotive crosses a steel trestle bridge near Canyonlands Field, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
Each of the thirty-six flatcars carried four steel-lidded bins. The two bins at the center of each car held up to thirty-five cubic yards and two outboard bins were larger still. Bringing up the rear were two ancient, exhaust encrusted locomotives. After fifteen years of service in the Rockies, the old diesel-electric engines could still share the load with the newer, equally powerful engines at head-end. Because of the extreme weight of the mill tailing trains, pushers are needed to help climb the initial grade. If an average container held forty cubic yards, the entire train carried almost 5000 cubic yards of contaminated soil. When dumped at the disposal site, a single trainload of contaminated soil would fill an American football field to a depth of about one meter.
Another 5000 cubic yards of nuclear contaminated material heads for the UMTRA Disposal Cell. It is not widely known that U.S. railroads transport radioactive material. 
To put the cleanup process into perspective, consider that it will take ten to fifteen years to complete the removal project. That timeline assumes two trainloads per day, at least five days per week. What might happen if a Colorado River flood were to hit the UMTRA site before the Moab Pile is gone? Only time will tell.
 
After the train passed my position, I jumped into my truck and headed towards the grade crossing at Utah Highway 313. When I reached that spot, the lead locomotives had already passed. I fastened my seatbelt and took off for a spot where the tracks come close to the highway. While taking pictures from a small hill adjacent to the tracks, the big diesel engines soon provided me with another blast of hot diesel exhaust.
The "Train of Pain" approaches the Rock Corral Road grade crossing - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
Traveling farther north, I stopped at an arroyo and shot pictures of the engines as they passed over a low bridge. My final stop was north of Canyonlands Field, where the unmarked Rock Corral Road crosses the tracks. This time I arrived well before of the train. After passing under the highway near Canyonlands Field, the train made wide left turn across my field of view. As it did, I could see each car in the thirty-nine car train. As the big diesel electric engines approached, I moved back form the tracks the tracks and continued shooting pictures. The train passed my position; it was heading down a slight grade, gaining speed on the straightaway.
Radioactive mill tailings pass by Rock Corral Road, in Grand County, Utah - Cl;ick for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
Thinking that I was smarter than the train this time, I had positioned myself upwind from the exhaust blast. Sounding like an earthquake on wheels, I watched as the mighty engines roared toward me. What I had forgotten was the several horn-blasts required at a rail crossing, even in the middle of nowhere. This time, rather than an exhaust blast I endured several deafening blasts from the horns.
 
Covered with diesel soot and near deaf from the horn blasts, I stopped chasing the "Train of Pain". Instead, I stood between the tracks and watched as the two 1996 GE C44AC pusher engines disappeared down the tracks.
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