Moving The Moab Tailings
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This page was last updated on May 30, 2022.
Atlas Mineral Corporation's Moab uranium mill was opened in the mid 1950s to process uranium-bearing ores from nearby mines. The Moab mill, when it was completed, was one of at least 10 other uranium mills built in the area of eastern Utah and western Colorado, all to process uranium oxide needed for the production of nuclear bombs. Uranium oxide was the concentrated product derived from milling "uranium" ore, which was actually an ore called carnotite. The Cold War with the Soviet Union was in its initial stages, and there was significant fear that a nuclear war was about to take place.
Numerous deposits of uranium ore were found during a boom in exploration in the period of of 1946 to 1951, but as higher quality deposits were found, with larger reserves, the uranium mining industry in southeastern Utah began to consolidate. By late 1953 Charles A. Steen, and his Utex Exploration company began to dominate, and Steen and his partners began planning a concentration mill at Moab, the center of the uranium boom.
"In 1947, the Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor to the NRC and the Department Of Energy, established a uranium buying station near Moab, Utah, just north of the Colorado River. After years of government operation, the Uranium Reduction Corporation (URC) built a processing facility at the buying station. In 1962 the Atlas Corporation bought the plant from URC and ran the mill until it was placed on standby in 1984." (Pogo.org, March 23, 1999)
The following comes from Wise-Uranium.org:
The original uranium reduction mill was built on the flood plain of the Colorado River, in 1956 by the UTEX Corporation, created by Charlie Steen, in order to process pitchblende ore from his Mi Vida Mine to supply the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's nuclear weapons program. The mill was later purchased by the Atlas Minerals Corporation, and continued to supply the AEC until the government quit buying uranium for atomic weapons, whereupon Atlas rebuilt the mill to process vanadium-bearing uranium ores typical of the Uruvan Uranium Belt into fuel for atomic power plants. The commercial market for uranium collapsed in 1982 in the United States, but the Atlas Mill had contracts which kept it running until March, 1984. Most of the 1950s uranium mills which used unlined tailings piles went out of business when the AEC quit buying uranium for weapons.
The following comes from the Mining Hall of Fame (mininghalloffame.org), about E. H. Snyder:
He was instrumental in developing a treatment of complex lead, zinc and silver ores and was a pioneer in the uranium, perlite and resin industries in Utah.
A combination acid flotation and acid leaching process, one of several developed by Snyder and his metallurgical staff, added greatly to the future of the United States zinc industry and particularly to major facilities at Bauer, Utah and Pioche, Nevada, which treated low-grade ores profitably.
He was a contract engineer when he joined Combined Metals, Inc. in Salt Lake City in 1915. He later was Vice President and Manager of the firm when it became Combined Metals Reduction Co., a subsidiary of the National Lead Co. In 1943 he advanced to President and in 1963 he became Chairman of the Board, a post he held at the time of his death. At the peak of his career in the 1940s he had nearly 1,500 employees on the payrolls.
As President and Chairman of the Board of Uranium Reduction Co. (Ureco), he and industry legend Charles A. Steen were early developers of Utah's uranium industry. Their mill at Moab, Utah was called a "modern miracle" in the 1950s. When Atlas Minerals Division of Atlas Corporation bought the corporation in 1962, Snyder continued to serve in an advisory capacity to the President.
The Atlas uranium mill closed in 1984, leaving behind 12 million tons of mildly radioactive uranium tailings. Although the tailings were covered over with a layer of protective soil, the dangers of radioactive isotopes still existed, and there were concerns about leaching into the ground water and the adjacent Colorado river. In 2001, the Department of Energy assumed responsibility for cleaning up the site.
In April 2009, Union Pacific began moving uranium tailings from the former Atlas Minerals uranium mill near Moab, Utah. With a total of 16 million tons of contaminated material to be moved, and with Union Pacific's Cane Creek Subdivision (the former D&RGW Cane Creek Branch) immediately adjacent to the mill site, rail transportation was seen as the best option for removal. A disposal site was selected 30 miles north at Brendel, where the the Cane Creek line connects with Union Pacific's former D&RGW mainline in eastern Utah. (The nearby highway junction, where U. S. Highway 191 to Moab connects with Interstate 70, is known as Crescent Junction.)
April 13, 1954
Charles Steen announced the construction of a uranium ore concentration mill to be built at Moab. A new company by the name of Uranium Reduction company, a Nevada corporation, was organized to build and operate the mill. The new company was to be a joint venture between Charles Steen and E. H. Snyder of Combined Metals Reduction company. Snyder would be vice president of the new company, and Combined Metals Reduction would operate the mill. (Ogden Standard Examiner, April 13, 1954)
(Steen's own Mi Vida "My Life" mine, 38 miles southeast of Moab, was opened when he discovered the ore body on July 6, 1952. The discovery came when his drilling rig cut through 14 feet of high grade uranium ore. Production began a short time later, and the mine continued to produce large amounts of ore until the price of uranium dropped significantly around 1960.)
(Read more about Combined Metals Reduction Company) (In late 1955 Combined Metals Reduction sold its interests in the Bingham district to Kennecott Copper. The company's mill near Pioche, Nevada, as closed in 1957, and in late 1958, the mill near Tooele, Utah, was closed.)
June 17, 1955
The construction contract for the building of the uranium reduction mill at Moab was awarded. The mill was to be located next to the Atomic Energy Commission's sampling plant, itself just recently completed. The new reduction mill would use reduction processes developed by the AEC at it plant near Grand Junction. When the final agreements were signed on June 18th, Steen became a vice president, and Snyder became chairman of the board. The total cost was reported as $12 million, with about 1/4 of the financing provided by First Security bank, and about 1/2 of the financing New York Life Insurance company. The remaining 1/4 was held by a combination of large construction and mining companies, including Combined Metals Reduction company. (Provo Daily Herald, June 17, 1955; June 19, 1955)
August 30, 1956
Prior to its planned September opening, a 30 percent interest in the Uranium Reduction company and its Moab mill, were sold to Hidden Splendor Mining company, a subsidiary of Atlas Corporation, an investment company with 38 percent of its holdings in uranium reserves. Hidden Splendor was the largest uranium mining company in the area, having shipped 70,000 tons. Buying into the Moab mill would prevent Atlas from having to build a mill of their own at their mines near La Sal, Utah. The sale was to take effect on October 15th. (New York Times, August 30, 1956, with aerial photo of the completed mill at Moab)
September 14, 1957
Formal dedication of the Moab uranium reduction mill took place on Saturday September 14, 1957. Utah governor Clyde, and both of Utah's congressmen were slated to be in attendance. The mill had been in operation since October 1956. Ground was broken in June 1955. The mill was currently processing 1750 tons of ore per day, all delivered by truck from 10 area mines. The mill sat on 50 acres. The mill's first year's production was reported to be 340,000 tons of uranium oxide. (Moab Times Independent, September 12, 1957; entire front page dedicated to uranium in Utah, and the new mill)
August 23, 1962
Atlas Corporation, of New York City, announced in June 1962 that it had acquired a full 75 percent interest in the Uranium Reduction company (Ureco). The 75 percent interest included the 35 percent interest held by Utex Exploration company, itself owned by Charles Steen, along with his pioneering Mi Vida mine. Another 19 percent of Ureco was already held by Atlas, through its subsidiary Hidden Splendor Mining company. The remaining 25 percent of Uranium Reduction company was held by First Security bank of Salt Lake City, and Milbank & Company of New York (15 percent), and by American Zinc & Lead Smelting company of St. Louis (10 percent). Atlas planned on making an offer to buy all outstanding public shares of Ureco. With the completion of the sale, Atlas would merge with Utex, with Ureco, and with Hidden Splendor to become a single company, giving it 75 percent ownership of Ureco. The Uranium Reduction company had existing contracts with the Atomic Energy Commission through December 31, 1966. By mid July, the sale was pending, awaiting approval from banks, the Securities & Exchange Commission, and the Atomic Energy Commission. The AEC approved the sale on August 18, 1962. The merger was completed on August 20th. The proposed acquisition and merger was approved by Atlas stockholders on May 15th, and the SEC had approved the acquisition and merger in July, approving Atlas' change in status from being an investment company, to becoming a holding company. With the completion of the merger on August 23rd, Atlas transferred ownership of all of its uranium holdings (mines and mill) to a new division, Atlas Minerals Division of Atlas Corporation. (Salt Lake Tribune, June 4, 1962; July 12, 1962; August 18, 1962; August 20, 1962; August 23, 1962; August 24, 1962)
July 31, 1963
Atlas Minerals completed its acquisition of Texas-Zinc Minerals Corporation, the second largest producer of uranium oxide in Utah. The Texas-Zinc company had a 1,000 tons per day uranium mill at Mexican Hat, Utah, with would be closed, and all production moved to the Atlas mill at Moab, assuring a continuing flow of processed uranium through 1970, continuing contracts for both mills that were to end on December 31, 1966. The sale and consolidation of the two companies was approved by the Atomic Energy Commission, which had not approved the sale and consolidation, until Utah's U. S. senator Wallace Bennett became involved and made the AEC aware of the economic and operational benefits of the consolidation. The "stretch-out" of production from 1966 through 1970 was in response of a decision by the AEC to delay and "stretch" its final procurement of uranium oxide, due to additional quantities needed to supply the growth of the nation's security needs. (Salt Lake Tribune, July 31, 1963; October 31, 1963)
(As a side note, the stretch-out of AEC procurement after the original December 31, 1966 date also affected the operations of the Vitro mill at Salt Lake City. The mill was closed in January 1965, and in July its production quotas through 1970 were transferred to the Atlas mill at Moab. The change added the production of 12 mines served by the Vitro mill to the Atlas mill, bringing its total to 40 mines served by the Atlas mill. -- Salt Lake Tribune, July 28, 1965) (The Vitro mill was located on 33rd South, immediately west of the south end of D&RGW's Roper yard in Salt Lake City.)
By 1965 the Atlas mill at Moab was the only uranium concentrating mill operating in Utah. Two previous mills (one operated by the AEC at Monticello, and another operated by Texas-Zinc at Mexican Hat) had been closed. (Utah's Mining Industry, published by the Utah Mining Association, August 1967)
After 1970, the market for uranium oxide concentrate changed from supplying the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC; Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC after 1975) with its needs, to supplying utilities across the United States with their requirements for nuclear power plants. The fortunes of the Atlas company, and its Moab mill rose and fell as the price of uranium rose and fell. The growth of the nuclear energy industry dropped off sharply in 1973, as public sentiment turned against the industry. Then an embargo on imported uranium concentrates was removed, and Atlas lost its profitability.
July 1, 1977
Atlas Minerals had its first problems with pollution controls when the federal EPA won a court case in March 1977 to stop discharges of polluted water from its Moab mill into the Colorado river. The court case resulted in a $65,000 fine, and a requirement that by July 1, 1977, Atlas must end its discharge into the river. The plant was shut down on June 23rd while changes were made that turned all discharge into the company's tailings pond. (Salt Lake Tribune, June 23, 1977)
February 17, 1984
Atlas Minerals company closed its three uranium mines and the Moab mill, putting 175 persons out of work. (St. George Daily Spectrum, February 17, 1984; Provo Daily Herald, February 19, 1984)
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was found to be almost ready to accept Atlas Corporation's proposal to limit the Moab site clean-up expense. The NRC is going along with Atlas's proposed plan of capping the tailings, instead of moving the tailings away from the Colorado River. Atlas was liable for clean-up costs, but was currently filing for bankruptcy and had filed a motion to abandon the Moab mill and tailings site.
September 14, 2005
The Department of Energy (DOE) issued a decision that the transportation of the Moab tailings would be by rail, using trucks for portions that could not be moved by rail.
Two Department of Energy railroad locomotives were moved from the recently closed Department of Energy site at Fernald, Ohio, to Moab for use during the cleanup of the Moab tailings. Moved for storage to the far south end of Union Pacific's ex-D&RGW Potash Spur.
Energy Solutions, Inc., was selected as the contractor for the removal effort, with plans to move the tailings in specialized containers, placed on board standard flat cars. Each train, operating daily on four days per week, was to be made up of 80 containers, each with a capacity of 16 tons. Specialized container handling cranes were installed at the mill site, and at the disposal site.
Bowing to political pressure from trucking industry special interest groups, DOE issued a supplementary decision to use an increased number of trucks to move the Moab tailings.
At the time of the February 2008 change to use trucks, DOE stated that the highway between Moab and Crescent Junction was to be widened and improved, allowing a never-ending stream of trucks to move the 16 million tons of material. (Salt Lake Tribune, March 2, 2008)
Local residents were against using trucks due to the increased level of traffic along the road during tourist season. There were serious safety concerns about possible accidents, especially during the tourist season, with trucks leaving the mill site every five to ten minutes.
August 5, 2008
Department of Energy announced that rail transportation would be used, stating that it would be safer and less expensive to upgrade the rail line, than to widen and improve 27 miles of the highway (three miles of the road north of Moab were already improved as a divided highway). (DOE news release dated August 5, 2008)
September 9, 2008
Energy Solutions, the contractor for the tailings removal, signed an agreement with Union Pacific for the railroad to upgrade the track, and improve several road crossings. Additional trackage would also be built at the mill site near Moab, and at the disposal site at Brendel. Service was expected to start in April 2009. (DOE news release dated September 9, 2008)
Union Pacific began upgrading the line with new ties and continuous welded rail. Additional trackage was laid near the north portal of the Bootlegger Tunnel to accommodate a new truck-to-rail transloading facility. Initial plans called for operations to begin in Spring 2009, with one train of 22 cars per day, five days per week. Each car was to carry four containers, making a total of 88 containers per train.
April 20, 2009
Union Pacific moved the first train of tailings material from the mill site, north to the disposal site at Brendel.
The contract for the removal of the Moab tailings received additional funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to hire 200 additional workers to accelerate the disposal effort, increasing the train frequency.
February 27, 2012
"The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reached another milestone today for the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project, having shipped 5 million tons of tailings from the massive pile located in Moab, Utah, to the engineered disposal cell near Crescent Junction, Utah. The pile comprised an estimated 16 million tons total when DOE's Remedial Action contractor EnergySolutions began relocating the tailings in April 2009, less than 3 years ago. The tailings are transported by rail in containers away from their current location next to the Colorado River to Crescent Junction 30 miles north. The Moab Project currently ships one train a day, 4 days per week. With today's shipment, the project also reached record of 69 consecutive trainloads carrying the maximum 144 containers without a missed shipment." (DOE news release dated February 27, 2012)
February 25, 2013
Thirty-six percent of the 16 million tons of Moab Mill Tailings have been moved. A seasonal work stoppage, and planned furlough of 27 employees, took place in late November 2012, with 30 employees retained for administrative and maintenance activities. During the furlough, to take advantage of the availability of a large supply of empty containers, a permanent liner was installed in the containers to replace single-use liners previously being used. The tailings tend to be sticky, making complete removal from the containers a difficult and at-times manual effort. New permanent liners will greatly improve the dumping time at the disposal cell. The work to continue transporting tailings from the mill site to the disposal site was scheduled to resume on March 4, 2013. (DOE news release, dated February 25, 2013)
April 23, 2019
The following comes from the April 23, 2019 issue of the Deseret News newspaper:
This month marks the 10th anniversary of the first rail shipment of radioactive tailings from the "Pile" near the banks of the Colorado River, with an estimated 9.5 million tons buried 30 miles away.
The U.S. Department of Energy announced that roughly 6.5 million tons of the uranium mill tailings remain.
In February, the government began a stepped-up schedule of removal, doubling weekly train shipments to Crescent Junction, where the disposal cell is located.
Each train can haul up to 144 containers and carry approximately 4,700 tons of mill tailings.
The accelerated schedule added 23 new employees to the project, which sits on 480 acres near the west bank of the river. The tailings cover 130 acres.
"In April 2022, 83,550 tons of tailings and mill debris were shipped to Crescent Junction for disposal, for a total to date of more than 12.5 million tons shipped (of a projected 16 million tons). Along with excavating and conditioning mill tailings, the Project has excavated and sorted a portion of the mill building debris that was buried in the southern end of the tailings pile." (Moab UMTRA Project Update)
DOE Locomotives at Moab
In April 2007, the Department of Energy moved two small railroad locomotives from its nuclear waste cleanup site at Ferald, Ohio. They were moved to the DOE-owned site near Moab, Utah, with plans to use them to switch rail cars as needed, to move the 16 million tons of uranium tailings from the Moab mill site, to a disposal site 30 miles north at Crescent Junction, by way of UP's Cane Creek Subdivision.
These two locomotives, painted red, with reporting OHFX reporting marks and numbered as OHFX 1250 and 1258, are part of a group of 77 unique locomotives built for the U. S. Army in 1953. They were designed to match a military specification for a small railroad locomotive that could be easily and quickly moved to any part of the world to aid in the supply of U. S. forces wherever railroad facilities were available. These two locomotives were numbered in the 1200-series, a group of 30 locomotives built to operate only on standard gauge tracks. A separate group of 44 locomotives could have their wheels narrowed or widened to match whatever track gauge was available.
When they arrived at Moab in April 2007, the two locomotives were moved to the far south end of the UP Cane Creek branch, at the Intrepid potash site at Potash, Utah, nine miles south of the Moab mill site. DOE leased a 150-foot piece of track from UP, at the far south end of track, which they fenced off to protect the public because the two locomotives had some very slight, very minimal contamination from wind-blown dust at the Ohio site.
After sitting unused for over four years, in Fall 2011, Union Pacific and Intrepid potash informed DOE that they were about to start operation of unit trains, and needed those last few feet of track of the Cane Creek Subdivision. To comply with the request, DOE hired a local heavy-haul trucking firm to load the two locomotives on trucks and move them north from Potash, to the Moab tailings disposal site at Crescent Junction, about 37.5 miles. The actual movement may not have taken place until after May 2012.
The locomotives have always been owned by DOE. The OHFX reporting mark was for Ohio Fernald. Fluor Daniel Fernald was DOE's contractor for the disposal of the contaminated Fernald, Ohio, site, and was allowed to apply their logo and name to the locomotives.
As of mid July 2012, the two locomotives sit at the end of track at the Crescent Junction site, and are available for sale by DOE. Donation to a museum would also be considered, but DOE cannot participate (logistics or funding) in any further movement. If a new owner is not located within a reasonable period of time, the locomotives will be dismantled and buried at the disposal site as part of the Moab tailings disposal effort.