Some fear the Colorado is getting nuked

  • Bill Hedden near Atlas Mineral Corp. uranium tailings pile

    George Frey
 

As the Colorado River crests in early June, activists will gather on its banks at a bend near Moab, Utah, where the river opens up into marshes, 30 miles upstream of Canyonlands National Monument. This is where Atlas Minerals' 10 million tons of uranium tailings are piled - and where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to allow them to remain.

This mill site has been in the public eye for years, since the NRC began investigating whether the company could be required to move the mess away from the river, or just to cap it with earth and rock (HCN, 10/3/94). Now that the NRC's study says to cap it, with final approval expected this summer, activists are trying to create enough publicity to catch the attention of Washington, D.C. Only an act of Congress can reverse the NRC's position.

The publicity blitz and this winter's heavy snowpack have made downstream politicians such as Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, nervous that floods could release upstream radioactive pollution. Arizona uses approximately 2.8 million acre-feet of Colorado River water annually and California taps 4.4 million acre-feet.

"I'm not a technical expert, but leaving the tailings within the floodplain of the Colorado River concerns me," says McCain. "I remember when flood flows on the Salt River carried garbage from buried landfills downstream, requiring emergency response. Let's not let that happen with the Colorado River."

If McCain and Miller decide to take the fight to Congress, the tailings opponents could get the clout they need to overturn the NRC's decision. But former Grand County councilman Bill Hedden, who advocates moving the tailings, wants the politicians to realize that the threat to the river is ongoing, and not just a matter of spring floods.

"That is a straw man Atlas is helping to set up. Then at the end of June everyone would say, 'what's the big deal?' " says Hedden. The base of the tailings mound is saturated in water, he points out, and already leaking a virtual alphabet of contaminants, including arsenic, barium, cyanide, lead, mercury and uranium. This toxic brew could harm endangered fish, says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency that intends to issue a "jeopardy" decision against the NRC's plan to cap the tailings.

"Atlas admits there is this continual leaching," says Hedden. "It has been going on for 30 or 40 years. It will go on for an indefinite future, and this bothers me."

Forty years ago, mills like Atlas dotted the Colorado plateau, providing uranium for Cold War bombs. When these sites were orphaned by companies no longer needed to produce uranium, the Department of Energy took over the cleanup, moving most of the tailings away from the river. But since Atlas Minerals kept mining at other sites, it was left in charge of its cleanup.

The company admits that contaminants leak into the river, but denies that pollution has drifted downstream. Moving the mess, an estimated $120 million endeavor, would force the company to declare bankruptcy. This threat caused the NRC to decide that, while it would be "environmentally preferable" to move the pile, the $15 million capping option makes economic sense.

But tailings opponents don't want to make Atlas pay. Instead, they want Congress to put the uranium waste under the control of the Department of Energy and declare it a Superfund site. Lance Christie, a Moab resident who chairs the Atlas reclamation task force, believes that the tailings will have to be moved eventually, so it might as well happen now.

"Do we waste a whole bunch of taxpayer and mining company money in court arguing who pays for it?" asks Christie. "Or do we just go directly to the end result, thank Atlas for their forbearance, take the bond, let them go away and move the pile?"

For more information about the June 2 protest assembly at the Atlas tailings site, call Karen Nelson at 801/259-8820. Atlas can be reached at 303/629-2440.