A few fish may move a mountain of tailings

  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 normal.


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 river.


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.


"They're dumping 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 intern





You can call ...


* Grand Canyon Trust at 520/774-7488;


* Atlas Minerals at 303/629-2440.