A couple of miles from Moab, Utah, and just 300 feet from the Colorado River sprawls a rare deposit: uranium tailings that haven't yet been orphaned.
The parent of the
pile, Atlas Minerals Co., is the first uranium developer that can
be held responsible for cleaning up its own mess. Typically in the
West, nuclear-weapons and energy companies have abandoned their
waste products, leaving any cleanup - and the bill - with the
federal Department of Energy.
The 11 million-ton
Atlas pile retains 85 percent of the ore's original radioactivity.
The base of the pile rests five feet above the mean level of the
river. Some observers say the spring crest of the river laps
against the tailings, leaching contaminants into the
But there is another kind of risk. The
company is willing to pay for some cleanup but has threatened to
declare bankruptcy if the cleanup becomes too
"None of us wants to see a company go
bankrupt," says Noel Poe, superintendent of Arches National Park,
whose border runs within a mile of the tailings. "But that pile
will be here 200 to 1,000 years, and Atlas, a company barely
hanging on, won't be around that long."
National Park Service, the Grand County Council, the Bureau of Land
Management and the state of Utah want the tailings hauled off to a
more stable location. Atlas officials say relocation is an
unnecessary and foolish luxury that would cost $100 million, drag
out over 12 to 15 years and expose the public to radon gas as the
tailings are churned. Atlas wants to protect the pile without
moving it, says the company's vice president, Rich Blubaugh.
On-site reclamation would be simpler and cheaper, he says, costing
$13 million spread over just five years.
every case where a company has orphaned a uranium tailings pile
near a river and a populated area, the Department of Energy has
stepped in. In Colorado, most of the tailings near Rifle, Gunnison
and Grand Junction are being trucked to new
In Telluride, however, residents
pushed the state health department to switch from moving mine
wastes to capping them.
It takes a government
agency to relocate tailings, Blubaugh says, because then public
funds can be used.
The Atlas mill, which sits
three miles from the now booming tourist town of Moab, Utah, opened
in 1956 and shut down in 1983. Last summer, the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission released an environmental assessment giving Atlas the
okay to plan and conduct on-site reclamation.
But opponents and others who expressed concern,
including Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, R, pressured the agency to pull
back the assessment and research a full environmental impact
statement, with the prospect that on-site reclamation will be
rejected. A draft EIS will be published in late October or early
"If the NRC denies our proposal,"
Blubaugh says, "we will look for an optional site (where the pile
could be placed) without (our) going bankrupt, but I cannot see how
we will come up with the money."
officials say river monitoring since 1979 proves there is no
problem with contaminants reaching the river, park superintendent
Poe points to biological evidence: a large grove of dead tamarisk
trees between the tailings and the river. Tamarisks are hardy,
aggressive trees that have invaded all along the river and usually
can be killed only by, as Poe says, "very deliberate herbicide
measures." He says seepage from the tailings has killed this grove.
Atlas vice president Blubaugh counters that he's "seen dead patches
of tamarisk like this one all along the Colorado."
Proponents of moving the tailings are more
concerned with the safety of the Colorado River than with cost.
They say the NRC hasn't done enough research and is hastily
completing the new environmental studies to accommodate Atlas.
Residents want additional studies on flood potential, groundwater
and river contamination and adjusted cost estimates, and they
charge the agency has biased its economic
"The NRC is only basing its decision on
what is least expensive and most expedient for Atlas," says Bill
Hedden, a furniture-maker and Grand County Council member who lives
One alternative would transport the
tailings by way of slurry pipeline or train to a location north of
the river near the airport. Environmentalists say the prevalence of
Mancos shale would provide a stable resting place away from a
But Blubaugh, who is
supervising the dismantling of the mill and a $600,000 temporary
capping of the pile, says slurry pipes, trains or trucks all
increase radon exposure and the chance of a radioactive spill. He
and the project manager for Atlas, Bruce Hassinger, say that
reclaiming the pile on site poses no threat to the river or
residents downstream. The company has accurately tested, he says,
and the results satisfy the NRC's regulations for the 1,000-year
horizon. Test wells show contaminants, apparently leaching from the
tailings into groundwater, 70 to 1,700 times the Environmental
Protection Agency standards on drinking
Hassinger says the documented leaching
into groundwater is no worry, since "nobody uses that water anyway,
and there is already a large amount of natural uranium in the
Poe fears that the groundwater
contaminants may be affecting the river in some way that no one has
tested. He says the company's tests of the river's quality are not
accurate because only surface river water has been sampled, not
sediment, backwater areas or plant and fish tissue where
contaminants are more likely to concentrate.
would like to see Arches gain part of the tailings site for a
visitor shuttle system. He says that leaving the tailings on site
would endanger other popular recreation areas, including
Canyonlands National Park, 30 miles
Blubaugh says the real issue is
development, not contamination. He says the county council, spurred
by the growing tourist economy in Moab, would like the tailings
moved so the land can be developed as prime river-front real
estate. "Essentially a company that created this community is being
pushed out by the community for development."
Despite Atlas' longtime involvement with the
Moab area, county councilman Hedden says he feels no obligation to
the company because the company seems to feel no obligation to its
people; he says that last September the Toronto-based Phoenix
Financial Finding Inc. took over management of Atlas and replaced
Atlas' CEO and four of the six board
Hassinger, who predicts it could take up
to 35 years to move the sandy pile, says, "I don't think people
realize the costs or potential health risks involved with moving
the pile, and you and me would end up paying the $100 million after
Atlas goes bankrupt."
For more information or
copies of the environmental assessment, contact Allen Mullins at
NRC, Office of Nuclear Material Safety and Safeguards, Washington,
DC 20555 (301/415-6693).
Public comment on the
EIS is welcome and will be included in a final report. Notice of
publication of the assessment will be made in the Federal