Seventeen citizens attended the “After the Pile” meeting Wednesday, Sept. 18 to give their input regarding how the uranium tailings site north of Moab should be used once the tailings are removed.
A little more than a third of the mill tailings at the Uranium Mill Tailings Remediation Action (UMTRA) site have been moved from the pile to a containment facility 30 miles north of Moab near Crescent Junction. And though the Department of Energy (DOE) project to remediate the site may not be completed until 2025 or 2029, depending on federal funding, the Site Futures Committee is seeking public comment now.
Russ von Koch, one of the members of the Site Futures Committee, emphasized the importance of the vision for the site as he opened the meeting.
“This is the mega gateway,” von Koch said. “It is the first thing visitors to Moab will see.”
The mill tailings site is across the Colorado River from the 900-acre Matheson Wetlands Preserve. It is poised between the City of Moab and recreational areas such as Arches National Park, Dead Horse State Park and the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park to the north, as well as Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recreational land and boat ramps to the south.
Four scenarios were presented at the meeting Wednesday night, each based on input received by nearly seventy citizens since the first public comment workshop was held May 15. The scenarios, in order of increasing development, are: Restoration and Trails, Community Park, Commercial Development and Combined Use, which is a balanced combination of the first three scenarios. The Site Futures Committee is still seeking comment through their web page online.
There are limitations to developing the property.
Although the entire site is 474 acres, due to 171 acres of floodplain, 104 acres of soil contamination, 102 acres of easements, and 29 acres of steep slopes – there may be less than 100 acres of viable land.
“While the DOE will be removing the tailings down to clean soil, the depth of contamination is not fully known and the final elevation of the property under the tailings pile cannot be predicted,” stated the Site Futures Committee’s report on site constraints.
A common vision is shared for all four scenarios, which includes a transit center and bike and pedestrian trails. Because city sewer services are not available on the north side of the Colorado River, it is also advised for the property to have its own wastewater treatment site.
In the Restoration and Trails scenario, a solar farm and rail station are added. It was stated that the rail line now being used to transport the tailings to the containment facility near Crescent Junction could be used to bring visitors to Moab.
In the Community Park scenario, federal resources agency offices are added to the northern side near Hwy 191. There are also other features, such as an ice rink, a play area, a boat ramp, an event center that would include an amphitheater and stage.
Jason Johnson, one of the members of the Site Futures Committee, said that by moving federal agency offices to the site, it could free areas in town that are now being used.
“It would allow the different federal agencies to be consolidated,” Johnson said. “It is also an opportunity to support the park with administrative staff to keep an eye on things.”
In the Commercial Use scenario, two commercial areas are designated, as well as a rail station, a welcome center, a solar farm, federal resource agency offices.
The Combined Use scenario is very similar to the Commercial Use scenario, except the solar farm is smaller and the play area and event center from the Community Park vision are added.
“This reflects the desire to see this land used in a way that would more directly benefit the economy and tax base of the area,” Johnson said.
A mountain bike park and golf course were also suggested for this scenario.
“This used to be a private property that churned a massive amount of money into the county,” said Grand County councilman Lynn Jackson.
He expressed concern that all the scenarios focused on using the site for a transit hub for Arches National Park or housing federal agencies.
“Before this goes too far, you should talk to the Chamber of Commerce too see how this may affect businesses.” Jackson said. “Don’t discount the Chamber and the business district by moving resources here instead of in town. That may affect their businesses. We have a recreation economy, we need to find ways to pay for it.”
Von Koch said that the scenarios had been presented to the Rotary Club, and that he would follow up with the Moab Area Chamber of Commerce.
It was discussed whether the property could be up for sale, or whether the DOE would retain ownership.
Lee Shenton, the liaison between the DOE and Grand County, said that the DOE reserves the right to keep the property or transfer ownership.
“If we, those of us who are not part of DOE, have a shared vision, they may adopt it.” Shenton said. “The better we collaborate to use it jointly, the better off we will be and the higher the likelihood the DOE will transfer it.”
Uranium was processed at the site beginning in 1956 by the Uranium Reduction Company. By 1961 the facility expanded and wastes from the mill were slurried into an unlined pond. When more capacity was need, a larger bowl was bulldozed. The mill was sold to Atlas in 1962, and continued operation until 1984. Upon closure an estimated 16 million tons of uranium mill tailings and tailings-contaminated soil were left in the unlined pond. The Department of Energy took control of the site in 2001 for remediation and tailings removal began in 2009.
Workers are now shipping four trains of tailings each week. Nearly six million tons of tailings have been moved by rail to a permanent disposal site near Crescent Junction, 30 miles north of Moab.
Shenton said that there have been other mills and tailings ponds that have been remediated and repurposed for public use in the Colorado Plateau area.
The properties have had a variety of public uses, including a business park, an Army Reserve facility, a river parkway, a solar voltaic lease site and a wastewater treatment site.
The DOE now holds Colorado River water rights that were associated with the uranium mill.
“These water rights have value and could be sold upon completion of the project to help offset site clean up costs. The community vision could consider requesting retention of those water rights necessary for maintenance of vegetation and other potential uses,” stated the committee’s opportunities report. Other assets associated with the property include access to electric, natural gas and communications lines.