MOAB — Perched on the northern doorstep of Moab, 14 million tons of radioactive red dirt is the goodbye gift left by a booming uranium mining industry that later went bust.
For some locals, the “Pile” of contamination has not been anything much to think about — not that big a threat — but rather like a liver spot that crops up suddenly on the forearm and could bring a bad diagnosis down the road.
Others maintain that the waste that is steadily being chipped away under the purview of a U.S. Department of Energy cleanup project should have been contained and buried decades ago.
“It means everything to me that the tailings are finally being moved,” said Rebecca Martin, a Castle Valley resident who pushed for the removal for years. “I love that river — I don’t love it when the wind blows.”
Seal, too, admits that moving the Pile is especially in the interest of the 25 million downstream users who depend on Colorado River water.
“Could be this year, could be next that we get a 100-year flood and Lake Powell might glow in the dark.”
In August, the Department of Energy and its primary contractor on removal, Energy Solutions, marked the removal of 2 million tons of tailings to a disposal site 30 miles to the north.
An infusion of $108 million in federal stimulus funding in April 2009 accelerated the daily cleanup to two trainloads of dirt.
At 3 p.m. each day, 144 containers are loaded onto the railroad cars by a Gantry crane to ferry 5,000 tons of waste to Crescent Junction. At 3 a.m., the next trainload departs.
Don Metzler, the DOE’s project director, said even absent the stimulus funding, the removal is 44 trains ahead of schedule and the project is well under budget.
“I am just kind of a regular guy, but I am not kidding,” Metzler said. “I would put this up against any other DOE project in the nation for performance, safety and community involvement. I set the bar really high. I want to make sure everybody on this project can feel good about what they do and make sure the taxpayer is not getting cheated.”
Metzler is a hard-driving, meticulous manager of details who insisted that the overwhelming majority of the employees hired on because of the cleanup project — especially with the federal funding — had to come from local stock.
“That was the mandate from Don,” said Kirk Briscoe, the Moab site operations manager. “Anyone outside that 150-mile radius had to have Don’s approval” to be hired.