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Chapter #163: Moab Pile - Here Comes the Flood - January 27, 2011


View of the Colorado River, with UMTRA nuclear cleanup site at lower left - Click for map of UMTRA site (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 

Cleanup of UMTRA Moab Nuclear Site is Now On Flood-Watch 

During the Cold War years, the UMTRA project languished for lack of sufficient funding.
 
During heavy rain, the Moab Wash channels water toward the Moab Pile and the Colorado River. An aerial photo on the current UMTRA website shows the wash running toward the site. Both then and now, a subterranean stream passes under the site. As it does so, it carries hazardous materials to the Colorado River. Today, pumps near the river lift much of that contaminated water to the surface. Sprinklers then distribute it across the tailings, where it evaporates into the atmosphere.
 
By 2006, new studies showed a high potential for massive flooding along the Upper Colorado River. What had previously been called a ‘1000-year flood’ might occur once in 300 years. The new 300-year flood might also be three The Moab Pile in April 2009. Click for image one year later (http://jamesmcgillis.com)times larger than the old 1000-year flood. Sediments from ancient floods along the river proved that a large spring flood could sweep much of the Moab Pile downstream. If so, its radioactive poisons would flow toward the Lower Colorado Basin. Suddenly, the prospect of Los Angeles and Phoenix becoming “ghost cities” seemed plausible.
 
During the George W. Bush administration, cleanup funds for the Moab Pile were sparse. At the time, the U.S. was fighting wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Unwilling to add further to the federal deficit, many Cold War era cleanups languished. Conventional wisdom said, “If a large flood is so rare, the odds are that it will not happen here in our lifetimes.” 
 
Soon after President Obama took office, his administration funded cleanup of the Moab Pile. Then, as the economy faltered, the project received additional federal stimulus money. In April 2009, the first trainload of contaminated soil departed for a disposal site near Crescent Junction, Utah. By late 2010, larger waste containers and a second train each day promised even faster removal of the Moab Pile.
Nuclear waste container staging area at the Moab Pile - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis) 
In 2025, when UMTRA concludes its work, the long-running environmental disaster known as the Moab Pile will be gone. With almost fifteen years to go, I wonder what might happen if a 300-year flood hits the site prior to complete removal.  When asked that question, an UMTRA manager explained to me that flood protection at the site was already complete. Most of that work focused on sandbagging where the Moab Wash meets the river on the northern edge of the Moab Pile. As a temporary stopgap, workers had sandbagged to protect the well field adjacent to the Colorado River. That small project protected against a normal spring flood, but would do nothing to stop the potential ravages of a 300-year flood event.
 
Once the removal and transport work began, conventional wisdom reestablished itself. The current prevailing attitude at the UMTRA project is that, ‘If we don't think about it, everything will be OK’. Removal and disposal of material continues, but will that effort ‘beat the clock’ against a 300-year flood event? Statistically, there is a five percent chance that a 300-year flood event will occur before UMTRA concludes. Even so, federal regulators and the private contractor continue to ignore the potential for flood damage at the UMTRA site.
Empty nuclear waste container being moved at UMTRA site, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) 
In recent years, large dust storms have become common occurrences in the Four Corners. The prospect of a regional dust storm rapidly melting heavy snowpack on the Colorado Plateau is real. In preparation for such an event, both UMTRA and its regulators should reassess the risk of flood damage at the site. A one-in-twenty chance that a flood will send any part of the Moab Pile downstream is too high a risk to take. The livelihood of fourteen million downstream residents may depend on protecting the Moab Pile during its removal.
Email James McGillisEmail James McGillis
 
 

By James McGillis at 12:49 PM | Environment | Comments (0) | Link

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