Any residual contamination from uranium ore and windblown mill tailings in soils underneath this drainage culvert below U.S. Highway 191 would not be remediated, under a proposal from the U.S. Department of Energy. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

“Keep it in the ground” is not just a rallying cry of anti-fossil fuels activists.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to concur with its proposal not to remove contaminated soils buried under a 1.45-acre area just beyond the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project site.

The area is located within the Utah Department of Transportation’s (UDOT’s) rights of way on both sides of U.S. Highway 191 just west of lower Courthouse Wash. It contains an estimated 2,066 cubic yards of soil that would need to be removed in order to fully remediate the rights of way on both sides of the highway.

Winds most likely carried uranium tailings from the former Atlas Mill site to the area, according to a DOE overview of the proposal. In addition, uranium ore may have fallen out of trucks that were en route to a nearby ore-buying station and the mill when it was still operating, the overview says.

Contaminated material was also left around a drainage culvert that runs underneath the roadway, according to the DOE’s “Application of Supplemental Standards.”

The energy department told the NRC that the cost to clean up the area is “unreasonably high” when compared to the long-term benefits of remedial action. What’s more, the department said, the residual radioactive material does not pose a clear hazard to the public.

“Remediation of this area would be costly compared to the health and environmental benefits,” the DOE said in its proposal, which was signed by former Acting Moab Federal Project Director Ellen Mattlin.

Grand County UMTRA Liaison Lee Shenton said that Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) officials concurred with the DOE’s assessment.

“It is a case where UDOT and the DOE have agreed in writing that the risks of cleaning up the residual radioactive material are not worth the costs of cleaning it up,” Shenton said.

UDOT Region 4 Communications Manager Kevin Kitchen said his agency gave its concurrence based on an assurance that the material could be treated as any other fill material, without undue risk.

“(Roadway) widening in this area has been accomplished on U.S. 191 with (the) associated bike trail and UDOT sees no need to disturb anything in this area in the foreseeable future,” Kitchen told the Moab Sun News.

Mattlin did not state how much it would cost to remediate the 1.45-acre area. And Wendee Ryan, the Moab UMTRA Project’s contracted public affairs manager, said her office has to run all media inquiries through the DOE’s headquarters, so she cannot respond to a question about those cost estimates by the Moab Sun News’ deadline.

The Moab UMTRA Project is a legacy of Cold War-era demands for uranium during the nuclear arms race with the former Soviet Union, and the dawn of the nuclear energy industry. As of January, crews had shipped an estimated 56 percent of the 16 million tons of uranium mill tailings and other debris from the old Atlas Mill site to a long-term disposal cell near Crescent Junction.

Other soils within UDOT’s Highway 191 rights of way – but beyond the current area in question – were cleaned up in two phases, first in the spring of 2003, and then again in the summer and fall of 2006.

Shenton said it would be difficult for him to make the case in favor of cleaning up the additional rights of way, since it would involve working on an embankment and around the culvert.

“I would agree that it’s appropriate to apply the (proposed) standards there,” he said.

However, since the DOE’s July 2017 proposal just recently came to light, Shenton said it raises a question in his mind: “To what extent should we be making such applications public?”

Grand County Council chair Mary McGann said she was not aware of the proposal, and no one from the UMTRA Project’s team brought up the issue during the Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee’s quarterly meetings.

But McGann said there’s no contamination on the surface, and she compared short-term radiation exposure to any residual material there to a common procedure that hospital patients receive.

“It’s about one-thirtieth of what you’d get if you had an X-ray,” she said.

Uranium Watch Executive Director Sarah Fields found out about the proposal only after a friend in Colorado called her attention to it, and she’s concerned that Mattlin never brought the request to county officials for any discussion.

“The county didn’t know about it, and as far as I could tell from the public documents, nothing had been posted,” Fields said. “I was just concerned that the county really didn’t have any input on this and it hadn’t been discussed in (the steering committee’s) quarterly meetings.”

From her perspective, there isn’t enough information out there about the proposal.

“More information needs to be developed, and people should be aware that they made this request,” Fields said. “… There needs to be a bigger discussion with the community, where questions can be asked and answers can be given.”

Concerns about the residual contamination along the rights of way were quite possibly the last things on the minds of visitors TJ Terry and Latrisha Miller of Cincinnati, Ohio. The couple strolled along the adjacent pathway near lower Courthouse Wash on Wednesday, Jan. 31, during a stop on their way to Grand Canyon National Park.

“It’s not something we would even know about, being travelers,” Terry said.

Highway maintenance workers in the area or semi-truck drivers parked along the rights of way for extended periods are the ones who are most likely to be exposed to the materials, the DOE found. Even then, a hypothetical truck driver would receive a fraction of the public dose limit in a designated time period – less than one-fifth of the maximum acceptable exposure levels, the department reported.

Agency seeks approval to leave low-level uranium contamination in place

It is a case where UDOT and the DOE have agreed in writing that the risks of cleaning up the residual radioactive material are not worth the costs of cleaning it up.