Thank the squawfish, say community activists in Moab, Utah. In the latest round of a long controversy, the endangered fish may be the lever that moves 10 million tons of radioactive uranium tailings away from the banks of the Colorado River.
Last spring, the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission (NRC) ruled that Atlas Minerals could leave the tailings
in place if it capped the pile with earth and rock (HCN, 5/26/97).
But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worried that leaving the
pile near the river would harm the Colorado squawfish and three
other endangered fish. In November, the agency hired the Oak Ridge
National Laboratory in Grand Junction, Colo., to see if the waste
was seeping into the river.
The resulting report,
released in January, is "the first time we've had - all in one
place - an analysis of what's in the tailings pile and what's going
into the river," says former Grand County, Utah, councilman Bill
Hedden, now working for the Flagstaff, Ariz.-based Grand Canyon
Trust. Uranium levels in groundwater near the pile are 52 times
higher than NRC standards, says Hedden, and concentrations of
molybdenum, selenium and sulfates are well above
The study also found that the tailings
pile is saturated with about 426 million gallons of contaminated
water, which will continue to leak into the groundwater even if the
pile is capped. Nic Korte of Oak Ridge National Laboratory says
that plumes of several contaminants - including uranium, ammonia
and nitrates - are flowing directly into the
The results of the new study are no
surprise to Atlas. "All this work seems to confirm what's already
known," says company spokesman Richard Blubaugh. "There are
alternatives that make a lot more sense than moving the pile."
The fate of the tailings pile now rests in the
hands of the Fish and Wildlife Service. If the agency decides that
leaving the pile in place is a threat to the squawfish, it would
issue a "jeopardy" decision, in effect telling the NRC that the
capping plan is a violation of the Endangered Species Act. The NRC
can ignore the opinion and cap the pile, but it will then be
vulnerable to outside lawsuits. Reed Harris of the Fish and
Wildlife Service's Salt Lake City field office says a draft
decision was expected April 9.
10,000 gallons of crud a day into the largest river system in the
Southwest," says Hedden, "but the whole thing ends up hanging on
some squawfish, since the Endangered Species Act is the only law
that has any teeth in this situation."
Michelle Nijhuis, HCN
You can call
* Grand Canyon Trust at
* Atlas Minerals at