February 10, 2011 -
The Colorado river is not only threatened by climate change and over-use of the river water. A major threat comes from an enormous radioactive mining-waste pit. This waste, or ‘tailings’ site is located on the bank of the Colorado River, in Moab, Utah, a small town that turned into the uranium capital of the world in the 1950`s. Set in some of the most spectacular desert landscape, just outside the adventure-seekers´ town of Moab, the US Department of Energy (DOE) manages a giant tailings pit where over the past decades millions and millions of cubic metres of all kinds of contaminated mining residue was dropped, in the open air, just next to the river. Radium, arsenic, lead, mercury, uranium, ammonia: you name it and you can find it at the Moab site. By 1984, the 16-million-ton pile of toxic nightmares had risen 40 metres high. By then, the Moabians started complaining about the radioactive dust that blew across town on windy days. For years, contaminated water had run off the site in the direction of the Colorado, directly threatening the river water with radioactive pollution.
In order to stop this threat, the US Government decided to invest billions of Dollars to clean up the tailings, by dismantling the whole waste site. “We`re taking the mine tailings from Moab by special trains to a location in the Grand Junction area, about 30 miles further to the north”, tells Kirk Riscoe, the site mananger of the Moab waste pile, while we`re standing in the desert heat along railroad tracks on a hill overlooking the giant waste site. “The material is brought to its new location by special trains. About 300 people work on the site. The job should be finished by 2028.”
Before transporting the mining left-overs, the waste material is first moved to evaporation ponds. Riscoe: “The waste consists of very fine-grained slurry, which is still wet after having been covered up fourty years ago. By putting it into the ponds, the water can evaporate, so only the polluted residue remains. This makes transport easier.” According to Riscoe, the material is then taken to a unique geological location. “We`re taking it to an uninhabitated area where we found a shale formation of 3000 feet thick. There`s no groundwater there, so nothing can leak away. We deposit the materials and at the end cover them up with a layer of sand and clay.”
According to Riscoe, there`s no comparable waste location like this one in the USA. “We used to have a similar location close to Grand Junction. People used the radioactive soil to construct roads and foundations of residential homes. They weren`t aware of the health threat of the nuclear waste at that time. Therefore, we had to tear down some of the buildings in order to take the radioactive tailings away. Of course, there are always some people who think what we are doing is silly, but we really have to dispose of the waste in a responsible way.”
In about twenty years, the tailings site along the Colorado should be history. But new threats are appearing. Riscoe: “Recently, uranium prices have gone up enormously on the world market. About twenty miles further south, in Lisbon Valley, they’re planning to re-open a uranium mine.”
Text: Jeroen Kuiper
Photos: Ronald de Hommel
February 10, 2011 -
The Colorado river is fed by melting snow water from the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. One of its many tributaries, the Gunnison river, has its source near Crested Butte, a pristine mountain resort high in the Rockies, close to the well-known ski resort Aspen. Crested Butte is located at 2600 metres (almost 8000 feet) altitude, and seems to be a place for the happy few. On a bright Sunday morning in August, happy families stroll along colourful wooden houses in this former silver mining town. ‘Be careful with your waste, it’s bear season’! says a sign in one of the shop windows. At Camp 4, people park their bicycles along the road and queue up for fresh coffee. On the main street, people on outdoor sandals stroll along the organic food market.
Text: Jeroen Kuiper
Photos: Ronald de Hommel
‘The inhabitants of Crested Butte are quite aware of environmental issues and the need to protect our rivers’, tells Steve Glazer a few moments later, after he has introduced himself in front of the wooden town hall. Glazer is the President of the High Country Citizens` Alliance in Crested Butte, a coalition of local NGOs fighting the plans of some companies to restart silver and coal mining in the mountains above the town. ‘Around 1860, coal and silver mining started here, but the mines have been closed and the sites have been cleaned up for years now. Because of high prices on the world markets, some potential investors have been asking about the possibilities to restart mining. But renewed mining would cause enormous damage and pollution to the Gunnison river and in consequence to the Colorado as well’, explains Glazer. ‘Mining is not a sustainable industry for our town. We would see a boom economy for some years and then it would all be finished again, after having polluted the river water. Mining doesn’t fit into the character of Crested Butte either. We’re focused on tourism and outdoor sports. Further down the valley, people depend on agriculture. We do not need mining here. Luckily, so far we have managed to keep the miners out since we started in 1977. We did this by raising the awareness of the local population for the need to protect our rivers. Therefore, investors did not manage to get sufficient local political support for their plans.’
Glazer is not only worried about the local Gunnison river, but about the future of the whole Colorado water system in general. ‘The big drought in the west of the US began in 2002. In that year, only one quarter of the average precipitation came down in the Colorado river basin. For many Americans in the West, this functioned as a sort of wake-up call. People became more aware of the water problems. Last winter we also had very little snowfall. If nothing changes, things will get out of control. Year after year, we are using more water than we receive. We can only do so by using up the stored water capacity in the great lakes behind the Powell and Mead dams, but at a certain moment that water will be gone as well, and this moment is approaching at high speed.’