Moab uranium tailings: should they stay or should they go?

  The U.S. Department of Energy is calling for public comment on its plans to clean up a 130-acre pile of uranium tailings and contaminated soils currently leaching ammonia and radioactive materials into groundwater — and the Colorado River — just three miles upstream from Moab, Utah.

The Atlas Minerals Corporation had operated the Moab uranium mill from 1956 to 1984. In 1998, the company declared bankruptcy, leaving the Energy Department with responsibility for the site (HCN, 1/31/00: Mountain of mine waste may move after all).

Now, the primary debate is over whether the tailings pile should be stabilized, covered, and left in place, or transported to one of three proposed disposal areas within an 85-mile radius of the site and capped. The cost of hauling over 9 million cubic yards of waste off-site — by either truck, train or pipeline — would add $3 million to $5 million to the price tag.

The Energy Department’s draft environmental impact statement proposes pumping and treating the contaminated groundwater that flows into the river, to protect endangered fish. It also addresses removing contaminants from 98 Moab homes and businesses that had used the tailings for construction or fill material.

The project’s planning process is expected to last until 2011, and subsequent remediation activities could take up to 10 years. The Moab draft EIS can be found at http://gj.em.doe.gov/moab/. The deadline for comments is Feb. 18.