Moab - Utah
Arches and Acres of Radioactive Waste
The striking landscape of Utah's Canyonlands and Arches National Park draws photographers, rock climbers and tourists from around the world. But not far from the ancient limestone petroglyphs and fabled Delicate Arch, lies one of mining's worst disaster sites and a landscape thick with new mining claims.
On the banks of the Colorado River, where the river meets the Moab Wash, stands an enormous pile of radioactive waste from uranium mining. The pile covers 130 acres with more than 16 million tons of "tailings"—the toxic trash created when tons of ore have been extracted, ground up and chemically processed. Long after a mining operation ends, the tailing remain, often continuing to erode or leach away, slowly releasing pollutants into groundwater and nearby streams and rivers.
In 1994, the operator of the Moab uranium mill declared bankruptcy to avoid spending more than $100 million to remove the waste and bury it offsite. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy has finally begun removing the enormous waste piles from the river bank. The projected cleanup will likely top $1 billion, with an optimistic completion date of 2028.
Still, new claims are being staked around Moab, with federal regulators virtually powerless under the 1872 Mining Law to take preventative steps to protect the public lands near the parks.
- U.S. Department of Energy, "Moab Tailings Timeline," undated. (PDF)
- U.S. Department of Energy, "Overview of Moab UMTRA Project," August 2008. (PDF)
- Peter Essick, "Deadly Dregs," National Geographic, 2002. (Photograph)