This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Moab • Moving the corner of a mountain is a feat sizable enough to suggest a big party.
So that's what hundreds of people did here Thursday night to celebrate their collective efforts at hauling away from the edge of the Colorado River more than 2 million tons of uranium-mill waste, roughly as much debris as the rubble of the World Trade Center collapse.
Day after day, the unsightly pile of uranium tailings from the old Atlas Corp. mill is being whittled away just as locals, environmentalists and downstream water users had been begging for years.
"It's absolutely fantastic," said Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison, enthusing that the first 18 months of actual tailings removal had gone so smoothly. "Who would have thought that they could move 2 million tons in that amount of time?"
The celebration signaled a big shift in this postcard-pretty redrock town where, for decades, the 130-acre tailings pile has dominated the valley's northern gateway.
Thursday's Dutch oven dinner at Swanny City Park morphed from a company picnic into a fundraiser that generated $45,000 for local schools. And it put the finish line for the mammoth job on the horizon.
Earlier this month, U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson wrote to U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu to ask for sustained funding so the $1 billion project can be completed by the congressionally mandated deadline of 2019.
The Utah Democrat, whose letter is co-signed by eight other members of Congress, thanked Chu for the $108 million in stimulus funds that made it possible to hire 200 people to speed up the work over the past year. He also said $70 million to $90 million is needed in the next budget year to stay on track.
"The longer the pile remains in its current location," the letter says, "the longer the risk of contamination remains."
No doubt the community will be backing up any effort to keep up the momentum.
Next year, the project goes out once again for competitive bid. Sakrison and others hope that Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions Inc. will be able to continue as lead contractor.
Company President and Chief Executive Officer Val J. Christensen shares that hope. His company invested $32 million in equipment to do the Atlas project.
"We're working hard on making sure we stay on the job," he said.
Don Metzler, project manager for the Atlas tailings cleanup, said he's determined not to let down the community that has been so supportive. As he looked over old files the other day, he realized that the mill produced 1,000 tons of tailings a day and now his 300-person staff is removing 10 times that much daily.
"There's something that's happening on the project that could be a model for government and industry," he said. "In my mind, it's an example of America standing strong."
Metzler noted that the project is already 44 trainloads or about three weeks ahead of schedule. Part of that is because of the many efficiencies that have been squeezed out of the project, such as the ability to load a rail car in six hours instead of the original 10.
And all of that with just two safety incidents: one broken leg and a truck rollover that temporarily shut down hauling.
"At the end of the day," Metzler said, "the taxpayer is getting his money's worth."
No doubt much work remains.
Ammonia, sulfuric acid and uranium are contained in the 14 million tons of tailings that have yet to be hauled up the newly constructed rail line to the disposal site at Crescent Junction, about 32 miles north of Moab. The tailings removal site, across Highway 191 from the entrance to Arches National Park, also needs to be re-vegetated.
Ultimately, this place will not only be cleaner but safer. No more ammonia killing endangered fish. No more risk of uranium waste sloughing into a river that 30 million people use for drinking water.
But all that somehow seems doable these days, with the trucks loading the tailings into rail cars 24 hours a day and the trains carrying it away twice every day.
Now the community can turn to more-mundane concerns, such as how to deal with the funding shortfall facing Grand County schools.
Superintendent Margaret Hopkin recalled how excited the kids were when a television station helicopter landed in the parking lot and the Jazz bear greeted them. The barbecued beef, beans, brownies and chips would translate into a sorely needed contribution to the budget, she said.
"We've done our accounts, and now we are moving forward," she said. "This has been a very healing event."
1962 • Atlas Minerals Corp. buys a 6-year-old uranium mill on the north edge of Moab and processes local uranium ore in it for more than two decades.
1998 • The company files for bankruptcy. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission creates a trust to deal with the tailings pile and close the site. The following year, the agency makes plans to cap the pile where it is, on the banks of the Colorado River.
2001 • The U.S. Department of Energy assumes control. Studies show harmful contaminants are leaking into the river, a water source for nearly 30 million people and habitat for some endangered species.
2005 • Pressure from local residents, state officials and members of Congress prompts the Energy Department to opt for moving the tailings from the river's edge to a newly constructed disposal site.
2010 • The Department of Energy and lead contractor, EnergySolutions Inc., announce the removal of 2 million tons of tailings, roughly the same amount of debris hauled away from the Twin Towers' collapse. With 14 million tons yet to go, U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson has begun pushing the Department of Energy to continue funding levels that would complete the cleanup by 2019.