MoabPile Late 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.


Tourists enjoy the Colorado River Bicycle Bridge at Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 

Moab UMTRA Plays Russian Roulette With Nuclear Waste

 

Late May 2011 found me in Moab, Utah once again. While there, one of my projects was to monitor potential flooding along the Colorado River. Previous research and scientific findings indicate that a Colorado River flood at Moab is more likely now than in any recent time.
 
As temperatures swing, drought prevails and dust storms roam the Four Corners, a heavy spring snowpack, and a quick thaw could create catastrophic flooding at Moab. To be sure, most of the town lies on higher ground, well above the paleo-floodplain. Other than a few commercial buildings and several campgrounds, the greatest risk is flooding at the Moab Pile.
 
Colorado River nears flood stage upstream from Moab, Utah in June 2011 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)During the Cold War years, uranium mines near Moab fed radioactive ore to the Atlas Uranium Mill. Using large quantities of highly corrosive acid, the mill concentrated the ore and then shipped it to the federal government, which had a monopoly on all things radioactive. Since all Americans hypothetically benefited from the nuclear deterrent known as "assured mutual destruction", so too should we all pay to cleanup the mess abandoned by the nuclear industry.
 
Remnants of the Atlas Uranium Mill and a colossal mountain of radioactive tailings together make up the Moab Pile. Since 2009, excavators have filled and sealed steel containers with vast amounts of the pile's radioactive earth. From Moab to Crescent Junction, the material takes a free ride via the Union Pacific Railroad's "Train of Pain". Actually, the ride is not free. Through our federal tax dollars, all U.S. Persons pay for its removal.
 
U.S. Highway 191 Colorado River Bridge at Moab, Utah, with Canyonlands by Night facility downstream - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)By late May 2011, the Colorado River approached flood-stage in Grand Junction, Colorado. As the flood surged downstream, I wanted to see if the Moab Pile was as vulnerable as paleo-flood surveys indicated. Over a two-day period, I visited several sites on each side of the river and also stood above the flow on the bicycle bridge. Viewed from any angle, water reached higher on the riverbanks than I had ever seen. According to some reports, flow rates have not been this high since 1983, when Lake Powell filled to capacity and forced operators to open the Glen Canyon Dam spill gates for the first time.
 
From the bicycle bridge, looking downstream, the U.S. 191 Highway Bridge appeared to skim low over the water. With its gracefully arched concrete supports, there was still some headroom for the water to flow. Just south of the highway bridge, the Canyonlands by Night buildings looked vulnerable to me. The riverbanks there were high enough to allay imminent fears, but their lack of reinforcement made for inadequate protection in the event of a larger flow. In any event, I would not want to own their flood insurance company.
 
Canyonlands by Night Colorado River excurion boat, with the Scott Matheson Wetlands and Moab Pile in the background - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)I stopped at Canyonlands by Night & Day to see if they needed a live webcam. A representative said, "No, we already have one". To myself, I thought, "Maybe you do, but it is not easy to find on the internet". There was an excursion boat tethered to the floating dock, but otherwise the grounds appeared deserted. Standing close to the river, I could picture two alternate scenarios. In the local version, the flood subsided and life in Moab went on as usual. In the Hollywood version, the snowpack in the high country melted in days, not months. The silent power of the Colorado River flood then enveloped the Canyonlands by Night property and swept it away.
 
Continuing my river tour, I turned off U.S. 191 at Utah State Route 279, better known as the Potash Road. After skirting the now diminished Moab Pile, I headed downstream. Despite nearly a decade of attempted extermination using the Tamarisk Beetle, large, half-dead tamarisk shielded every river view. Soon, I turned around and drove back to where I could see the Moab Pile, the Colorado River and the Scott Matheson Wetlands, all in one panorama. From a distance of about one half mile, the churning brown, river appeared to lap at the base of the Moab Pile. The following day, I drove downriver on the opposite bank, along the Kane Creek Road. With the Matheson Wetlands then to my right, the Moab Pile stood out on the horizon, along the far riverbank. Although the river was turgid and brown, its wide channel in that area kept the river in check.
 
Looking upstream at the U.S. Highway 191 Highway Bridge from Canyonlands by Night, Moab Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Writing now from California in late June 2011, I must rely on news reports and internet searches to keep up with the story. While Googling variations of, "Colorado River Flood Moab 2011", I found a number of articles that touched upon the subject. None, however, told what I considered to be a complete story. As I have pieced it together, here is what transpired since I left Moab in early June. 
 
Both the Green River and the Colorado River continued to rise until at least mid-June. Grand Junction, Colorado experienced significant flooding and bank-erosion, although the river made a long, slow peak there. Downstream, near Moab, the Red Cliffs Lodge experienced bank erosion and flooding of temporary structures in what they call their "gravel area". According to on-scene reports, the river never approached the hotel or its guest rooms. The Colorado River bicycle and highway bridges at Moab stood firmly above the river. Canyonlands by Night remained dry, if not high above the river crest. The Moab Pile still sits sedately in its old place, although water backed-up into adjacent drainage channels.
 
Colorado River flooding - A view upstream past dying tamarisk toward the Moab Pile, with the Matheson Wetlands to the right - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In the spring of 2011, what saved the Moab Pile? The answer may lie in the Matheson Wetlands, which were a softer target than the Moab Pile. Wildfires swept hundreds of acres near the river in 2009, with another sixty acres burned in June 2011. By late June, the river flooded the Matheson Wetlands, submerging much of the recent burn area. Root structures weakened in the 2009 fire now let go altogether. Without further human intervention, the latest fire became the lucky break that we needed. If two separate fires caused by human carelessness had not weakened the plant structures along the river, the wetlands might have held their banks. As it was, they absorbed the flood over a wide flood plain. If they had not accepted the flood as they did, a rampaging Colorado River might have projected its hydraulic power toward the reeking hulk of the Moab Pile.
 
In order to protect the Moab Pile, UMTRA crews have removed some material from its leading edge. UMTRA has constructed several small protective berms, as well. However, the paleo-history of floods along the Colorado River at Moab indicates that the Moab Pile remains vulnerable to the "three hundred year flood", if it should happen during the next decade. During that decade of tailings removal, there is a one-in-thirty chance that a flood of up to ten times the current 32,000 cfs flow rate will hit Moab. Picture a wall of water forty or fifty feet higher than the new highway bridge as it sweeps out of the Colorado Riverway Canyon, and then on towards the Moab Pile.
 
Colorado River water intrudes into the Matheson Wetlands on the far riverbank; with late May 2011 snowpack on the La Sal Range in the background - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Had the Upper Colorado Basin snowpack been deeper last winter or had it melted faster, the 2011 story might have ended quite differently. We who live downstream and depend on the Colorado River for our water supply were lucky this time. Just as easily, it could have gone the other way. In a Fukushima-like, scenario, some or all of the Moab Pile could now lie as radioactive mud on the bottom of Lake Powell. If a mega flood were to fill Lake Powell, operators at Glen Canyon Dam would open the flood gates and sweep that cloud of radioactive mud on towards Lake Meade. Such an event would likely rank as the number one human caused disaster in all of recorded history. For lack of uncontaminated water, the Desert Southwest would face a human out-migration fifteen to thirty times greater than what occurred during the disappearance of the Anasazi.
 
Recent news reports stated that by 2019, the Moab Pile could be moved. The engineers and workers at the Moab UMTRA project are so efficient that they haul more radioactive-waste more quickly than ever before. among other things, they have learned to fill huge rectangular containers almost to the brim. Even though an initial infusion of federal stimulus money is now gone, the original twenty-year plan could culminate in less than fifteen years. Despite the lucrative contracts to remove it, no one wants to hang around a pile of radioactive waste any longer than necessary.
 
The Moab Pile, adjacent to the flooding Colorado River at Moab, Utah in June 2011 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The "speed is of the essence" mentality at Moab UMTRA increases our collective risk. The highest priority should be to protect the pile from flood damage and dispersal. Recent flood mitigation at the site proved sufficient for this year's 30-year flood. Once sufficient flood mitigation is in place to protect against the 300-year flood, removal could again become the top priority. Otherwise, the unprotected status of the Moab Pile will require that we, in the Southwestern United States dodge the "nuclear bullet" each spring until at least 2019.
 
Check back here in 2020 to see if disaster struck. If we are writing our articles from upstream of the current Moab Pile, you will know that current plans did not go well. If we are then writing from downstream in sunny Southern California, you will know that we all won the game of "Nuclear Waste Roulette" now playing out along the Colorado River at Moab.
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Full Moon over Moab, Utah, August 2011 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Nuclear Dust Storm Hits Moab, Utah

     
 
From August 14 - 19, 2011 I was in my favorite town of Moab, Utah. With several of eight local Moablive.com webcams in need of service and one new webcam to install, I had a busy week in Moab. Other than two brief thunderstorms, it was either warm or hot during my entire visit. When I left Moab at 3:00 AM on Friday morning, it was 76 degrees. Each day, downtown temperatures topped one hundred degrees . At the Moab Rim Campark, away from all of the concrete and asphalt, it was a bit cooler . 

 
On Tuesday, I visited Andy Nettell, proprietor at the back of the Back of Beyond Bookstore. A month earlier, our MoabBooks.com webcam server had failed. The MoabBooks.com webcam captures customers browsing at Back of Beyond Bookstore in Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Luckily, the spare unit that I sent to Andy via UPS plugged right in and has worked flawlessly ever since. Next time you visit the bookstore, visit Andy's antiquarian section at the back of the store. There you will see a red light flashing on our live webcam. You can view that webcam live on the BackofBeyondBooks.com or at MoabBooks.com. Stop by and wave to all of us out here. The world is watching. 

 
After retrieving the broken server from the bookstore, I headed over to Best Western Canyonlands Inn, intent upon getting wireless service connected to their webcam. With help from the friendly staff at the hotel, I was able to bypass their log-in screen and reconnect the Moab Canyonlands Inn "Center and Main" webcam. The webcam is located above the Peace Tree Cafe, in the new Main St. Suites at Canyonlands Inn. Now that their webcam is working properly, you can watch vehicular and foot traffic any time in Downtown Moab. The best place to watch is on the MoabInn.com website. Soon, Canyonlands Webcam at the Best Western Canyonlands Inn Main Street Suites in Downtown Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Inn will feature the webcam on their CanyonlandsInn.com website, as well.

 
Next, I headed twelve miles north of town on U.S. Highway 191. My destination was Canyonlands Field, also known as the Moab Airport. There, at Redtail Aviation, we have a live webcam pointing out the window of their hanger. Its field of view includes the arrival/departure area for Great Lakes Airlines, as well as the parking area for visiting private jets. Mr. Chris Bracken, pilot and mechanic for Redtail Aviation was working in the hanger that afternoon. He offered moral support as I taped the webcam back on to its designated window. Using different types of tape, we are still baffled by why the camera will not stay firmly attached to the hanger window. Chris believes it is a combination of cool air from their swamp cooler and high heat on the outside of the window glass. After I left town, the camera fell from the window, but Chris got it back in business the next day.
The flight line at Canyonlands Field, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)
Thursday, August 18 was my last day in Moab, and I had one new webcam to install. An associate broker at Arches Realty in Downtown Moab had asked me to come in. After quickly deciding on their best view, I began installation of their new webcam. Six hours later, I had the webcam tested and showing a great image of Moab and the Redrocks from their first story window.   

 
Before I left the realty office, the broker invited me to review all MoabLive.com webcams on her computer screen. On the screen we could see a thunderstorm raging at Canyonlands Field, about fifteen files north of our location. A quick glance at our several Spanish Valley webcams showed increased weather activity all around. The Slickrock had clouds, thunder storms cloaked the La Sal Range and the flag flew almost straight up near the Moab Rim. From our Afternoon scene of the Redrocks, from Arches Realty, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)vantage point at the computer, we could see thunder storms coming and thunder storms blowing away. Looking at that spectacular sight, we were awed by the breadth and power of nature in and around Moab.

 
Approaching as it did, from the north; the storm first hit Canyonlands Field, and then moved on towards Moab. As the airport-thunderstorm collapsed, it sent a torrent of cold air south, along the Moab Rim and down the U.S. Highway 191 canyon. There, the venturi effect created by narrow canyon walls accelerated the wind. At the Potash Road, the canyon widens again, thus allowing the wind to fan out over the top and sides of the Moab UMTRA site. The rounded shape of the Moab Pile allowed a low pressure zone to develop over its top. Behaving like a giant airplane wing, wind gusts entering that low pressure zone launched tons of radioactive and toxic soils into the air.

 
Nuclear dust storm - a cloud of radioactive toxic dust lifts from the UMTRA site and settles on Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)The heavier particles (and presumably the heavier radio-nucleotides) quickly fell back to earth. With the UMTRA's direct adjacency to the Colorado River, I am sad to report that the river received a heavy dose of radioactive dust and chemical toxins, as released by the ensuing dust storm. It is always good to remember our downstream neighbors. In this case fourteen million American and Mexican citizens living downstream rely on the Colorado River for drinking water, manufacturing and crop irrigation. As sad as these facts may be, The Dust Storm of August 19, 2011 did not end there.

 
Writing later to a Moab friend, I said, "By the time I got to a gas station on the south side of town, a gale of dust and trash swept over me". When I arrived home at the Moab Rim RV Campark, farther south, I went down to the rail fence and took some pictures. From there, I could see wind ravaging the Moab Pile and sending tons of radioactive dust toward Downtown Moab.

 
A cloud of radioactive and toxic dust envelopes the northern end of the Spanish Valley, near Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)From the pictures I took, it is obvious that the UMTRA site is highly vulnerable to winds streaming down-canyon past the Arches National Park entrance. Near that location, the canyon both narrows and deepens. The resultant squeezing of the air creates a venturi effect that is focused on to the northwest side of the pile. Since the UMTRA removal efforts expose more raw soil daily, it easily went airborne and precipitated out as dust throughout the City of Moab and the Spanish Valley.

 
Simultaneously, a similar, but larger dust storm was tearing up the land in Phoenix, Arizona and all of Maricopa County. Was that mere coincidence, or is there a definable connection between those two dust storms? Only if the DOE and the National Weather Service (NWS) cooperate and share data on such events will we begin to predict their occurrence. In this case, I suspect a weather front that stretched from Canyon Country, Utah to Tucson, Arizona. Perhaps someone of knowledge could check and correlate the timing of regional dust storms throughout the Four Corner States.

 
Thunder storms, wind and a double rainbow over the Spanish Valley near Moab, Utah (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Despite the absence of region-wide information sharing, any actions taken at the Moab UMTRA project on August 18, 2011 were inadequate. Transporting the Moab Pile by rail to Brendel and Crescent Junction, Utah appeared to be their focus. A distant second in importance is the physical integrity of the pile, as it exists today. A local resident told me that telephone complaints about UMTRA's dust bring a canned response from the contractor's public relations office. Callers, who may be choking on UMTRA's toxic dust, are told that 'wind over a certain speed results in immediate suspension of grading and hauling at the site'."

 
Even without coordinated dust storm alerts, UMTRA contractors can now monitor nine public webcams situated around Moab and the Spanish Valley. If they were to monitor only one screen provided me as the Moab Live Public Service Webcam Page, UMTRA contractors could see a windstorm coming long before they felt it. Greater Moab has many micro-environments and each has Derelict and abandoned mobile rock-drilling rig near the Moab Rim in Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)its own unique micro-weather. If Uranium King, Charles (Charlie) Steen (1919-2006) had foreseen the long-term threat that his company created, I doubt that he would have situated his Atlas Uranium Mill (now UMTRA) at its current location. With the ongoing threat from flooding and wind storms, old Cold War fears still haunt the area around his creation. 

 
The drill rig shown abandoned below the Moab Rim is of the type borrowed by Charlie Steen to make his Mi Vida Mine discovery. In fact it may be the exact same rig. In those days, and for many years thereafter, mining trucks and equipment were often abandoned around Moab. Those who brought this piece of Moab memorabilia to its current location carefully jacked it up on to several railroad ties, removed the wheels and drove away. Now, forty or more years after its derelict arrival, the machine slowly rusts away. At the rate of current decomposition, I estimate its half-life to be about 704 million years, which coincides nicely with the half-life of uranium-235 which it was used to discover. 

 
The Moab Rim RV Campark on a clear afternoon, in August 2011 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)I have not read the Department of Energy?s (DOE) charter of the UMTRA Moab Project, but there must be something in there about using every reasonable and cost-effective method of protecting the Moab Pile from flooding downstream or blowing away in the wind. We know from previous studies that deep beneath the Moab Pile there is a large reservoir of contaminated water. In fact, the center of the pile is so wet that the latest Google Earth view of the UMTRA site shows a recently uncovered stream bed. The default Google Maps view shows the Moab Pile as a lake

 
Water beneath the Moab Pile has only two places it can go. If allowed to, it will migrate downstream towards the Colorado River. In fact, a well-field along the riverside attempts to extract contaminated ground water and spread it atop the pile. As the water slowly dries on undisturbed parts of the pile, it forms a tough crust. With so much of the site under recent excavation, very little of the ground stays undisturbed for long. As a result, much of the UMTRA site is unprotected from another big "blow off". 

 
The DOE should require the contractor to take immediate action to design and deploy a far larger array of sprinklers at the site. Ideally, an onsite reservoir would feed the sprinkler system, which could quickly cover the entire pile. With better weather monitoring and forecasting, the contractor could start The snowless La Sal Range as seen from U.S. Highway 191 South in Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)deploying large volumes of sprinkled water ahead of the next dust storm, rather than afterwards, or as on August 18, 2011, "not at all".  Whoever monitors the weather and calls for future halts in work at the site should be an employee of the NWS, not the DOE or the contractor. When danger lurks for the Moab Pile, no one should second-guess an early weather-shutdown, rather than a late one. In the current situation, shutting down "on time" is often too late.

 
Many in Moab grew up with or within the nuclear industry. Despite the toll it took on mine workers and processors, Moab is tolerant to the point of nostalgia about its ranching and mining past. That familiarity may breed complacency, which Moab can ill afford. Even if many residents consider a nuclear dust-bath to be an acceptable occurrence in town, most tourists and visitors do not. The only way to assure the safety of all in Moab is to take immediate measures to change the Moab UMTRA charter, making environmental protection at least as important as removal and transportation of contaminated material.
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