Chapter #271: The True Cost of Mineral Extraction - January 23, 2013

A portable hard-rock drilling rig similar to the type Charlie Steen used to discover the largest uranium claim in U.S. history lies derelict near the Moab Rim - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

"A billion here, a billion there... Pretty soon you have some real money." - Senator Everett Dirksen

While living in Los Angeles in the 1980s, I first became aware of “The Moab Pile”. Near Moab, Utah, on the right bank of the Colorado River, stood an eighty-foot tall mountain of uranium tailings saturated with acid, ammonia and radio nucleotides. In newspaper articles of that time, I discovered that seasonal flooding of the Colorado River threatened to sluice 16 million tons of tailings into the drinking water supply of fifteen million people downstream.

2006 Image of U.S. Highway 191 South, with the Moab UMTRA site, better known as the "Moab Pile" at the bottom of the hill - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)When I started traveling to Moab on a regular basis in 2006, the Moab Pile once again entered into my thoughts and dreams. Although the subject did not receive much press coverage, that year floods of a size not seen since 1984 again cut into the Moab Pile. Throughout its term of office, the George W. Busch administration was slow to commit funds to the cleanup of the imminent hazard.

Once the Obama administration took over, it allocated federal stimulus funds to the project. Now, four years later, the Moab Pile is smaller by almost one-third. With current funding curtailed to pre-stimulus levels, the twenty-five million people now living downstream will have to wait another six to twelve years for the complete removal of the Moab Pile. If ever there was a good case for increased federal funding, the Moab UMTRA Project is that case.

Following is a timeline for the creation and demise of the Moab Pile:

  • 1952 – Near Moab, Utah, prospector Charlie Steen discovered and claimed the largest uranium deposit in United States history.
  • 1954 – Steen approached the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) about building the first large, independent uranium mill in the United States.
  • 1957 – Near Moab, on an outside bend of the Colorado River, Uranium Reduction Company (URC) dedicated its $11 million uranium mill.2008 - The Moab Pile, with its irrigation system creating the horizontal white line in the middle of the image - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)
  • 1962 – Charlie Steen sold URC and its uranium mill to Atlas Corp.
  • 1962 – Licensed and regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Atlas Corp. continued the operation of the uranium mill.
  • 1970 – The Atlas Corp. mill converted from producing uranium concentrate (yellowcake) to producing fuel for commercial nuclear power plants.
  • 1984 – Spring floods on the Colorado River blasted up to 66,000 cubic feet [1,870 cubic meters] per second directly into the Moab Pile, causing an undocumented release of contaminated material into the Colorado River.
  • 1984 – Atlas Corp. ceased operations at Moab, leaving both the mill and up to 16 million tons of uranium tailings and contaminated soil at the site.
  • 1988 – When it became obvious that the mill would not operate again, Atlas Corp. began on-site remediation of the mill and tailings pile.
  • 1995 – Atlas Corp. crushed the mill and then placed an interim cover of soil over its remnants and the tailings pile.The Spirit of the Ancients smiles as he overlooks the Moab Pile in October 2009 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)
  • 1998 – Atlas Corp. declared bankruptcy, relinquished its license and forfeited its reclamation bond.
  • 1998 – The NRC appointed PricewaterhouseCoopers as the trustee of the Moab Mill Reclamation Trust, licensing that company to initiate site reclamation.
  • 2000 – Congress and President Bill Clinton approved transfer of responsibility for the Moab Pile to the Department of Energy (DOE).
  • 2001 – The DOE accepted transfer of title for the site, with direct responsibility going to their office in Grand Junction, Colorado.
  • 2003 – In order to slow the migration of ammonia and other contaminants into the Colorado River, DOE contractors constructed eight extraction and more than thirty freshwater injection wells at the site.
  • 2004 – The DOE Moab Project Team published a draft plan that called for moving the contaminated tailings and decommissioned mill to an offsite location.
  • 2005 – DOE announced its preferred disposal site, thirty miles away in the desert, near Crescent Junction, Utah.
  • In 2009, a truck sprinkles dust-suppressing water on the Moab UMTRa site, also known as the Moab Pile (http://jamesmcgillis.com)2006 – Flash flooding cut through layers of sand that covered the pile, washed out a containment berm and left a large puddle on top of the 130-acre Moab Pile.
  • 2007 – EnergySolutions of Salt Lake City, Utah received a $98 million contract for removal and disposal of tailings through 2011.
  • 2008 – In preparation for removal of material, DOE began infrastructure improvements at both the Moab Pile and the Crescent Junction disposal site.
  • 2008 – The DOE announced that transportation of tailings to the disposal site would be by rail, rather than by truck.
  • 2009 – Stimulus Funds provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act increased removal activity to two trains per day, six days each week.
  • 2010 – In In 2010, with the addition of federal stimulus funds, the Moab Pile was disappearing at the rate of over one million tons per year - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)March, the Moab UMTRA project reached a milestone, with over one million tons of tailings removed from the site.
  • 2010 – In August, the Moab UMTRA project reaches another milestone, with over two million tons removed from the site.
  • 2011 – Just as stimulus-funding dried up, the Moab UMTRA project reached another milestone, with over four million tons removed from the site.
  • 2011 – The Colorado River overflowed its banks at the Moab UMTRA site, causing damage to earthworks and a riverside bicycle path, but sparing the river from direct contact with the Moab Pile.
  • 2012 – In a competitive bidding process, Portage, Inc. of Idaho Falls, Idaho displaced EnergySolutions as the prime contractor for removal of tailings from the Moab UMTRA site.
  • 2012 – In February, the Moab UMTRA project reached another milestone, with over five million tons removed from the site.
  • 2012 – With commencement of reduced federal funding, Portage, Inc. announced a new concept, whereby the annual contract for removal would switch to a nine-month schedule, with a three-month hiatus each winter.

in 2012, demolition and disposal of the Moab Pile went on at a slower rate - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Now, more than sixty years after Charlie Steen discovered uranium near Moab, the estimated completion date for the Moab UMTRA project ranges from 2019–2025. In 1957, the original Uranium Reduction Company mill cost $11 million to build. The current estimated cost to remove and dispose of the mill and its contaminated tailings is $1 billion. For that honor, U.S. taxpayers will shell out almost one hundred times the original cost of construction.

This week, the two top stories in the Moab Times Independent newspaper concern the future of mineral extraction and processing in that area. In one story, “A controversial oil sands mining operation proposed for the Book Cliffs
northeast of Moab has cleared its final state regulation hurdle, allowing it to become the nation’s first such project.” In another, “The Grand County Council voted unanimously to send a letter to President Barack Obama opposing creation of national monument status for 1.4 million acres surrounding Canyonlands National Park.”

in 2012, as excavation reduced the vertical profile of the Moab Pile, Moab and the Spanish Valley reappeared from U.S. Highway 191 South for the first time in over two decades - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) If the president were to grant national monument status to unprotected landforms, wildlife and viewscapes around Moab, Utah, large-scale mineral extraction projects there would at last receive increased scrutiny. In the sixty years since Charlie Steen discovered uranium near Moab, have we learned anything about the true cost of mineral extraction and processing on our most sensitive public lands?

By James McGillis at 08:49 PM | , | Comments (0) | Link

Chapter #261: Moab - A Rare Beech B-45 (T-34A) - November 3, 2012

Looking much like a Beech T-34A Mentor Trainer, this Beech B-45 export model recently landed at Canyonlands Field, Moab, Utah Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

A Rare 1954 Beech B-45 (AKA T-34A) Arrives at Moab, Utah

On October 2, 2012, I was at Canyonlands Field, Moab, Utah fixing the webcam at Redtail Aviation. For unknown reasons, the MoabAirlines.com webcam had gone dark just a few weeks before. Although it would take several more trips to fix the webcam, I decided to stop work when an unusual airplane arrived on the tarmac. Over the roar of an engine, one of the mechanics said, “It’s a T-34A”.

By the time I had walked to the transient tie-down area, the engine had stopped and the pilot was on the ground, retrieving his tie-down equipment.
Pilot of a Beech B-45 (T-34A) military training aircraft maneuvers it into place on the tarmac at Canyonlands Field, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)“That was fast”, I said as he and his companion continued their work. I told him that I was always looking for another unusual aircraft to photograph and that this was a good candidate. Without stopping his work for more than a moment, he consented to my request.

With flawless gray paint, the number “021” and the words “U.S. Air Force” on the airplane’s narrow fuselage, I felt like I had stepped back into the early 1950’s. The Air Force banded-star logo and a diagonal checkerboard pattern on the tail looked authentic to me. Only the discreetly painted “N-134FA” painted on low, near the tail indicated that this was a private, not a military aircraft.

Designated as Serial Number 021, This Beech B-45 military trainer inches into place at Canyonlands Field, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)With no motorized tug available, the pilot hooked a handle to the nose wheel and pushed. With a slight uphill grade before him, I was surprised how quickly he got the heavy airplane moving. When he came almost to a halt, he asked his companion for some help. Soon, the couple had the plane positioned in its place on the tarmac. As I mentioned the unpredictable and erratic winds that sometimes visit Canyonlands Field, the pilot quickly chained each wing to a metal loop, cast into a concrete pad below.

As they worked, I noticed more details on the airplane. There was a robust, retractable tricycle landing gear. On each wingtip, there was a small, aerodynamic tank, which added to on-board fuel reserves. Built for strength more than speed, most of the rivets on the fuselage featured round heads, which protruded from the metal skin. In various places, especially on the wings, more aerodynamic flush-rivets had replaced the old round-headed ones. Earlier, it appeared, this plane had received an overhaul of its airframe. The three-point prop and its shiny
spinner bespoke of a recent engine overhaul or replacement.

A good tie-down system is essential at the occasionally gusty Canyonlands Field at Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Soon, the canopy cover was on, special cushions sealed the engine air intakes and the crew of two was ready to depart. As if on cue, a van pulled up and an adventure outfitter chauffeured them to their next destination. In about twenty minutes, this couple had landed, tied down their airplane and departed. As if the airplane flight was not enough for this adventurous couple, they had an afternoon hike planned in the Canyonlands near Moab.

If you see an airplane and wonder, “Who owns that?” copy down the “N-Number”, which is found on or near the tail. Access the internet and go to the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) Search Page. Type in the N-Number and then click “Submit”. In a moment or two, you will receive a summary of the airplane in question, including its type, age and ownership. Although I had
given a business card to the pilot, Moab can be a distracting place, so perhaps he lost my card or forgot to write.

Pilot of a Beech B-45 (T-34A) places a sun-cover over the canopy of his aircraft - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) When I conducted a FAA search on “N-134FA”, I found many interesting details about the supposed T-34A aircraft. Although similar to the Air Force designated Beech Model T-34A Mentor that its markings indicated, this aircraft was actually a Beech Model B-45, manufactured in 1954. As a Beech B-45 of that particular vintage, it was a U. S. manufactured military trainer intended for sale to the export market. Current registration for the airplane is by Fast Aircraft, Inc. in Scottsdale, Arizona. Beyond that, I will have to wait for the pilot or his crew to see this posting and provide new or better information.

After publication of this article, we heard from owner and pilot Todd McCutchan. Following are his comments:

Hi Jim,

So it is a 1954 Beech T-34A (B-45). The B-45 was the export version of the T-34A which was built for the USAF. My particular aircraft went down to Chile where it was used to train fighter pilots and was outfitted with gun pods / bomb racks to gunnery / bombing training and perhaps some light ground attack.

It was returned to the USA in as a group of 20+ other T-34’s that were negotiated to be purchased by a private USA company in 1990. Since then it has been heavily modified and restored. The original 225 hp engine has been replaced with a 285 hp engine and all of the avionics, wiring, electrical system have been updated and most other systems have been overhauled or replaced.

I am the 2nd owner since its return to the USA and purchased the aircraft in 2009. My wife and I fly it around the USA where we participate in airshows and fly-ins as well as give rides to young people hoping for a career in the air and returning veterans to the air.

I have a written a few articles about the T-34 and its history which you will find here and here.

Kind regards,
Todd McCutchan
Fast Aircraft
T-34A - N134FA

By James McGillis at 04:38 PM | , | Comments (0) | Link

Chapter #253: Moab Airport - Canyonlands Field - August 31, 2012

While ground crew inspects the airliner, Great Lakes Airlines first officer awaits passenger loading of a Beech 1900 at Canyonlands Field, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

A Busy Afternoon at Canyonlands Field - Moab, Utah

In April 2012, I visited Canyonlands Field, near Moab, Utah. It was a busy day at the airport, with takeoffs and landings going on throughout the afternoon. Serving both general and commercial aviation at the same field sets the Moab airport apart from most regional airports. The juxtaposition of commercial and private takeoffs and landings, all without tower support means that everyone involved needs to stay alert and responsible for their actions.

In this video, I watch as the Great Lakes Airlines Beech 1900 departs Moab. Only minutes later, a private pilot lands his high performance TBM850
Great Lakes Airlines Beech 1900 on the tarmac at Canyonlands Field, Moab, Utah - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)turboprop on the same runway. As with any uncontrolled airfield, no one takes off or lands until radio communications have confirmed the location of any airplanes in the area. Although this video looks like a narrow escape, it is more like an aerial ballet, choreographed by the pilots themselves.

Next time you are in Moab, Utah, be sure to dedicate a few hours to the action at Canyonlands Field. The best time is often on a Saturday afternoon. Between the skydivers coming down and the busy airfield, you will not regret your visit.


By James McGillis at 11:18 PM | , | Comments (1) | Link

Chapter #252: Moab, UT - Save Ken's Lake Puddle - August 29, 2012

Fishing enthusiasts, boaters and hikers recreate at Ken's Lake in April 2012 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

When is a Lake Not a Lake? When it is Ken's Lake, Moab, Utah

In 2012, a continuing drought on the Colorado Plateau created a meager spring snowpack in the Sierra La Sal. When I visited Ken’s Lake, near Moab, Utah in April 2012, I was encouraged by the volume of water that I saw behind the dam. Although I did not know it at the time, there was more water present than in any April for the past five years. As a casual observer, I saw what looked like a good water year for both irrigation and water sports on the lake.

In August 2012, the Grand Water and Sewer Service Agency (GWSSA) issued its summer status report on Ken’s Lake. According to the document, the Ken’s Lake water level has dropped from April’s 101% of average to a mid-August thirty-five percent of average. Using the first two charts in the document, I was able to determine that Ken’s Lake currently held 1000 acre/feet less water than it did in a normal year.

At Ken's Lake near Moab, Utah, rain showers move from right to left across this image - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Next, I looked down at the five-year storage chart. Again, the results were alarming. With just over 400 acre/feet of water currently impounded, Ken’s Lake was heading to its lowest August levels in the past five years. With that trend, it was obvious that Ken’s Lake was destined to become Ken’s Lake Puddle again this year.

Some will say, “So what? It is a human made water storage reservoir. If all of the water gets used up every year, then it is serving its purpose”. Although that may be true, Ken’s Lake is also the largest recreational lake in the Moab area. When the reservoir goes dry, there is nothing of consequence to attract campers, hikers or wildlife. The lake is also a bellwether for drought conditions throughout the Colorado Plateau. If the towering La Sal Range gets little snow and has a fast spring runoff, few other places will fare much better. The regional drought seems likely to expand and become more prevalent in the Four Corners states.

After a weather front passes Ken's Lake, the Moab Rim glows in indigo light - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)It behooves the stakeholders and managers of Ken’s Lake to act now and prevent it from becoming a permanent eyesore. The easiest way to save the lake is to stop allocating water for alfalfa farming and other water-intensive crops. If a farmer is actually growing fodder for his or her own livestock, the GWSSA could make an exception. Instead of alfalfa, if each stakeholder planted grapes or fruit trees, the Spanish Valley could rise again as a tree crop and viticulture area.

If Spanish Valley and Moab Valley Farmers and environmentalists work together, Ken’s Lake may well remain a beautiful body of water, enjoyed by all. If not, will the entitled stakeholders pretend that there is no problem, or will they accept responsibility for the outcome?


By James McGillis at 04:41 PM | , | Comments (0) | Link

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Face on Mars - Is it John Carter?
How Water Helped Make The West
Yahoo! - Fighting Its Last Battle?
Helium Gas, Neither Earth nor Mars
Megatrend vs. Meganiche - 2007
German Hydrogen Bomb Ready
Passing The $100,000 Bill
Google Wins - Microsoft Withdraws
A.Word.A.Day, You Ought to Know
San Fernando Valley Winemaking
WindSong - The Book - Updated
Divine Inspiration, Or Nearly So
Going Down to the Depot
Japanese Win The "Space Race"
2007 eCommerce - Made Easy
Discovering The Great Reflector
Navajo National Monument, Arizona
Moab, Utah Memories - 2007
Fall Color, Silverton, Colorado
Autumn Equinox in the Rockies
Hasta la Vista, Taos, New Mexico
Megatrends 2010 - The Book
The Quantum Leap, New Mexico
Chaco Canyon Memories 2007
Flame-Out in Phoenix, Arizona
Annals of Homeland Security '07
Quartzsite, AZ - RV Camping
WindSong eBook - Now Ready
The Quantum Leap Celebration
Welcome to my new weblog 2007!

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