The White Mesa Uranium Mill processes uranium-bearing material from several sites around the U.S., including Moffat Tunnel.
Tim Peterson/Courtesy of EcoFlight
Since 2019, The Union Pacific Railroad Co. has been shipping uranium-laden waste from the Moffat Tunnel water treatment plant in Winter Park to Utah’s White Mesa Uranium Mill, which, according to Chairman Manuel Heart of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, threatens the drinking water his community depends on.
On March 15, 2022, representatives from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition, the Grand Canyon Trust, and two U.S. congressmen met via Zoom to discuss the threat White Mesa Uranium Mill poses to the safe drinking water of the region. White Mesa is tied not only to Union Pacific’s treatment plant built near Winter Park Ski Resort, but to the toxic mine runoff generated by Moffat Tunnel.
In 1927, the United States Government and Union Pacific blasted Moffat Tunnel into existence. The tunnel’s primary objective was to shorten the journey between Denver and Salt Lake City, and later to pipe fresh water from the Colorado River Basin to the growing population of Denver and the Front Range.
Yet the construction of Moffat Tunnel led to unexpected consequences; namely the runoff of heavy metal- and uranium-rich water directly into the Fraser River.
The process is fairly simple: water from rain and snow atop the Continental Divide percolates through the high Alpine tundra, down through fissures and cracks in the granite below, and finally out through holes such as old mine shafts and railroad tunnels. Along the way, the water picks up trace amounts of heavy metals, such as uranium. The water that exits the mountains via drainage points like Moffat Tunnel is laden with these elements.
For almost a century (from Moffat Tunnel’s construction in the 1920s to 2014), Union Pacific had been dumping this contaminated water directly into the Fraser River. In 2014, after pushback by concerned members of the Grand County community, Union Pacific and the Grand County Board of Commissioners stated in an official press release that a facility would be built to filter out “the fine particulates and metals that have historically been discharged as pollutants to the Fraser River.”
The plant, constructed in 2017, was built right next to the base village of Winter Park Resort, and filters the hazardous materials, including radioactive uranium, from Moffat Tunnel’s wastewater. What’s left is a toxic sludge, which is then shipped off to Utah, where it is treated at White Mesa Mill.
In 2018, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Water Quality Control Division cited the Union Pacific Railroad Company for discharging into the Fraser River.
According to the department’s findings, there were several instances where Union Pacific was dumping contaminated water into the Fraser River between 2012 and 2016. On one instance in October of 2016, the department found that hazardous water overflowed the water treatment plant’s diversion weir “over ground and directly into the Fraser River.” Though the precise number of gallons that flowed into the Fraser River at the spill’s height still remains unclear, it’s estimated that “the water flow into the Fraser River ranged from 164 to 387 gallons per minute.”
Members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe march in opposition to the uranium treatment mill in White Mesa, which could be threatening their water supply.
Tim Peterson/Courtesy Photo
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found that Union Pacific had not only failed to comply with the state’s discharge requirements specified in the 2008 Colorado Discharge Permit System, but had also failed to “comply with basic surface water requirements,” to “notify a change in discharge,” and “properly monitor and report” the discharge Moffat Tunnel generated.
Since 2018, Union Pacific has cleaned up its act, and the Fraser River has been spared from having toxic water discharged into it. But even with the treatment plant removing pollutants from the tunnel’s discharge water, the harmful material left over after the water is treated has to go somewhere.
In April of 2020, Union Pacific sent a request to the State of Utah Department of Environmental Quality Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control to expand the White Mesa Uranium Mill’s capacity to include uranium-bearing material from the Moffat Tunnel treatment plant.
This request specified that the material from Moffat Tunnel be treated at White Mesa as an “alternate feed”, which the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission defines as “certain wastes, including sludges or soils, from other sites that contains recoverable amounts of uranium.”
In the technical evaluation and environmental analysis for the Moffat Tunnel alternate feed request, Union Pacific estimated that “the Moffat Tunnel uranium bearing material has a uranium content ranging from 0.45 to 0.49 dry weight % natural uranium or 0.53 to 0.58 dry weight % [triuranium octoxide].”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, heavy metals and radioactive elements can be detrimental to people, and can potentially cause cancer or birth defects. That’s why it’s bad news for animals, vegetation and people if these toxic substances enter the wetlands, rivers and groundwater.
That’s also why the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the city of Blanding, Utah, and the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition are so concerned that more radioactive waste is being processed at the White Mesa Uranium Mill. The White Mesa Mill has been treating Uranium waste for decades, and has operated near the White Mesa Ute community. In 2021, the state of Utah approved White Mesa’s application to process the waste from Moffat Tunnel.
During the March 15 meeting, Manuel Heart, the Chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, stated that there are “250 tribal, community, and employees of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe living (in White Mesa)” who get their water from the large aquifer that lies in the geological formation beneath the mill.
Chairman Heart explained that the toxic or radioactive waste being treated at White Mesa (including that from Moffat Tunnel), poses a severe risk, due to inadequate safety measures preventing toxic and radioactive material from leaching from White Mesa’s treatment ponds and into the aquifer.
“Our concern from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe,” said Chairman Heart, “is how do we protect our tribal members’ access to clean water?”
This is a challenging issue for the communities of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the city of Blanding. Another layer of complexity is added when considering that a portion of the waste contributing to this threat comes straight from the cavernous mouth of Moffat Tunnel.
The communities of Grand County, Blanding and White Mesa are faced with the challenge of how to deal with these hazardous materials, and how to protect fresh drinking water. But with entities like White Mesa Mill and the Union Pacific Railroad inadvertently creating a huge amount of toxic and radioactive waste, it’s unknown how these communities will deal with this challenge.