Moab, Utah: Beauty and the Nuclear Feast

Double Arch in Arches National Park. | Photo: Jeffrey Stylos/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Moab, Utah is a paradoxical place. The high desert community slotted into the canyonlands of the eastern portion of the Beehive State receives scant precipitation, yet through it surges one of the nation's great rivers, the mud-colored Colorado.

The millions of acre-feet of water that flow past the town each year have done little for those whose ambition has been to farm the dusty valley. The local economy also secured no discernable advantage from another of the area's natural features: back in the 19th-century, when such things mattered enormously, Moab offered one of the few places that people and goods could safely ford the oft-rampaging river. Even that incentive was rendered inconsequential in 1883, the year that the railroad penetrated the region, bypassing Moab well to the north; the village all but dried up.

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Moab's saving graces are even more paradoxical -- and strikingly visible as you approach the city from the north on U.S. 191. On your left, the massive blocks of weathered, iron-rich red sandstone set off dramatically against the azure sky announce that you are nearing Arches National Park.

This staggering terrain draws more than 700,000 visitors annually, and they drop a lot of coin into the town's cash registers. But not one tourist can enter another federally managed site located about a mile or so south of the park's entrance, a place that once generated considerable work for and boomed the population of the region.

Squinting at the large sign planted in front of its gated drive, in type too small to read as we drove by, I barely deciphered the awkward acronym UMTRA. Google spelled it out for me: Uranium Mining Tailings Remedial Action project.

Moab site features, view looking north. | Image: Courtesy U.S. Department of Energy
Moab site features, view looking north. | Image: Courtesy U.S. Department of Energy

How disconcerting that the very same geological forces -- an eon-long churn of uplift, erosion, sedimentation, and deposition -- that generated the iconic monoliths, fins, and arches dazzling so many in the park also produced the mineral essential to the white-flash terror of atomic bombs. How odd that in Moab one federal agency sought to preserve wild nature and another, the Atomic Energy Commission, promoted the rapid exploitation of nature's rare-earth minerals to incinerate our enemies.

The tensions -- cultural, environmental, and political -- are as complicated as they seem.

In 1956 the Uranium Reduction Company built a uranium milling plant to the immediate northwest of Moab, on a site along whose southern border the Colorado runs. Its central product was the infamous yellowcake concentration, and until the mid-1980s it processed an estimated 1400 tons a day. Sold exclusively to the Atomic Energy Commission until 1970, and subsequently to nuclear-power plants, Moab's uranium punched up the nation's Cold War nuclear stockpiles and lit up millions of homes and businesses in the American west.

The tailings made Moab glow -- and not in a good way. For nearly 30 years, the various companies that operated the facility dumped ton after ton of the radioactive sandy byproduct into an unlined impoundment area located 750 feet from the river. Over the decades, this Geiger-hot waste, which ultimately totaled 12 million cubic yards, was spread over 130 acres at a depth of more than 80 feet. According to the Department of Energy (DOE), which took over remediation of the site, the tailings "have an average radioactivity of 665 picocuries per gram of radium-226," and because the center of the monstrous pile has a "high water content...excess water in the pile drains into underlying soils, contaminating the ground water."

Some of the deleterious consequences are revealed in "The American West at Risk," an illuminating book whose authors pay special attention to the Moab mill. It's hard to dispute their claim that it ranks "high in the annals of indiscriminate disposal," for the tailings each day continue to release "an estimated 28,000 gallons of radioactive pollutants and toxic chemicals into the only major river draining the southwestern United States."

Among the noxious byproducts is ammonia, the levels of which are "several hundred times higher than state water quality standards allow and eight times the level considered lethal to fish." Add to this devastation the toxins absorbed by those who mined the radioactive material, inhaled wind-blown tailings dust, or just poured a cool drink of water on a blistering hot August afternoon.

The Moab mine, like Washington's Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Rocky Flats weapons facility in Colorado, and Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, helped turn the west into a radiant wasteland.

Cleaning up these hot spots requires a herculean effort, and because it is chronically short of funds, DOE can only make slow progress in groundwater remediation. Slower still is the transshipment of tailings in steel canisters to a new storage facility in Crescent Junction, 30 miles north. Although the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009) provided a critical infusion of money, those dollars were rapidly expended and the department reports that currently it is only "shipping one train a day, 4 days a week, carrying up to"¨136 containers for a total of about 4,850 tons per trainload." It is going to take years before UMTRA completes its work, before Moab can breathe a huge sigh of relief.

Whether it should get a reprieve was for Edward Abbey an open question. He liked to wallow in the apocalyptic, as his memoir of his experiences as a seasonal ranger in Arches National Park during the uranium-rush of the 1950s, suggests. "Let men in their madness blast every city on earth into black rubble and envelop the entire planet in a cloud of lethal gas," he wrote in "Desert Solitaire" (1968). The "canyons and hills, the springs and rocks will still be here, the sunlight will filter through, water will form and warmth shall be upon the land and after sufficient time...living things will emerge and join and stand once again, this time perhaps to take a different and better course."

For all his gleeful misanthropy -- he never met a park visitor he did not abhor -- Abbey wanted his readers to feel what he felt about this stark, jagged, and dry land, to sense its transcendence.

His words worked for me. Because two busloads of tourists had disembarked just before my wife and I pulled into the trailhead for Delicate Arch, we drove on to a remote overview, where Abbey's prose helped close the gap. This "weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature...has the curious ability to remind us -- like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness -- that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky sustain a ship."

So buoyed, "we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures."

But the journey is brief, as brief as that instant before the sun sets when the "voodoo monuments burn with a golden light, then fade to rose and blue and violet," and the "scarlet penstemon and the bayonets of the yucca turn dull and vague in the twilight."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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