Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Radioactive Cleanup on the Colorado

In Moab, UT, 38°34', 109°32'; we met Kimberly Schappert by choosing the Up the Creek tents-only campground in the middle of town. Kim came to Moab over 20 years ago, and started a mountain biking magazine. She has seen Moab change from a small mining town with a Uranium Cafe and Atomic Grill, into a mecca for outdoor recreation. Kim became involved in county government and worked for years to get the huge uranium tailing pile on the north end of Moab cleaned up. Decades of tailings piled adjacent to the Colorado River were sending a radioactive plume of groundwater seepage (also polluted with ammonia) toward the river. The mill served dozens of uranium mines south of Moab (near the 38th parallel) and was located in Moab because of the large amounts of river water needed to process the ore. Millions of downstream users in Arizona, Southern California and Las Vegas, were threatened. The funding is finally in place to move ahead with the cleanup, which began last April (the mining company went bankrupt to protect itself, so we taxpayers are paying the bills). We had a morning tour of the site by Department of Energy contract geohydrologists, Ken Pill and Liz Glowiak. Truck containers are loaded with contaminated tailings, then the containers are transferred to clean trucks that move to trains hauling the material about 30 miles north out of the watershed. Moab wash runs right through the site, carrying surface water to the river. There is a need to dry out the tailings before they are moved, and much monitoring of groundwater going on with test wells. Ken and Liz showed us the "habitat " area along the river. Birds were singing and fish swimming among the small strip of riparian plants left along the river front. There is a huge potential for this site at the gateway to Moab once the tailings are gone. It will take 10 years of constant work to move 2 million tons, a mountain of tailings.

Arches National Park is literally next door to the tailings pile. Our driving route across Utah forces us to go around the majestic Colorado River and Green River canyons that we had canoed last spring (the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers is within a mile of the latitude line). The 38th parallel route passes through a series of incredible national park landscapes, all sculpted by water: Canyonlands NP, Lake Powell NRA, Grand Staircase-Escalante NM, Capitol Reef NP, and Bryce Canyon NP.

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