Before mountain biking made Moab, Utah, a mecca for Lycra-clad thrill seekers, the town’s fortunes rested on another kind of extreme pursuit: uranium mining. From the 1950s through the ’70s, prospectors descended on the area en masse to mine uranium for Cold War weaponry and nuclear power plants.

One of the biggest uranium-processing mills in the area was run by the Atlas Minerals Corporation, just three miles north of Moab on the Colorado River. The mill closed in 1984 when the boom petered out, leaving 12 million tons of radioactive tailings and contaminated soil perched alongside — and slowly leaking into — the river.

For years, the state of Utah and the U.S. Department of Energy have wrangled over what to do about the problem, which landed in the Energy Department’s lap when Atlas went bankrupt in 1998. Now, however, armed with new evidence that the Colorado could shift course, undercut the tailings pile, and send the entire mess into a river that supplies drinking water for about 20 million people, Utah seems to have finally convinced the Energy Department to move the pile to higher ground.

"In a big flood, the tailings pile is really right in the middle of the action. The water would be 25 feet deep on the pile," says Bill Hedden, executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust. A recently released U.S. Geological Survey report makes it clear, he says, that "a catastrophic failure is not at all unthinkable here."

Change of course

Back in January 2000, then-Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson announced that the Energy Department had decided to move the tailings. But a year later, Richardson was replaced by Spencer Abraham, a former U.S. senator from Michigan who had, years earlier, called for the abolition of the very agency he now headed.

With Abraham’s appointment, Hedden says, "The whole chemistry within the Department of Energy changed immediately." The agency became more reluctant to talk about making the massive effort required to move the pile. Last November, it finally released a draft environmental impact statement containing a range of possibilities: doing nothing; "stabilizing" the pile in place; or transporting it to one of three locations farther away from the river. The department refused to identify a "preferred alternative" — an unusual, shrug-of-the-shoulders attitude that did little to quell the heartburn in Utah.

Then, the U.S. Geological Survey’s report, released earlier this year, brought new proof that the river could wreak havoc on the pile. Rep. Jim Matheson, D, whose district includes the Moab area, says the report was one piece of "a growing body of evidence that this was an unstable pile."

The Environmental Protection Agency, which along with the state had funded the study, promptly rated the proposal to leave the pile where it is "environmentally unsatisfactory," citing the "prolonged environmental and public health risk that could result from the continued release of toxic contaminants."

Around the same time, Utah’s congressional delegation and Gov. Jon Huntsman, R, sent letters to the Energy Department demanding the pile’s removal. (In December, outgoing governor Olene Walker sent a letter to the agency with a tart declaration that "any remediation other than an off-site option is unacceptable.") Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, R, met with new Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman in early April, and on April 6, Bodman announced that the "preferred alternative" for the tailings pile is to move it away from the river.

We’ll send the bill

The tailings will be transported — probably by rail — to BLM-managed land near Crescent Junction, a defunct truck stop 30 miles north of Moab just off Interstate 70. Moving the pile to Crescent Junction will cost about $470 million, more than twice the price of stabilizing the pile and leaving it in place. And big questions remain about the final price of cleaning up the mess. The groundwater below the original site also must be treated, primarily to remove ammonia used during ore processing. The Energy Department estimates that the cleanup will take 75 to 80 years, but Loren Morton, with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Radiation Control Division, says it could actually take 200 years — and add another $108 million to the cleanup costs.

Now, says Rep. Matheson, "We have to find the money to move this pile." The Utah delegation will ask Congress for appropriations for the project next year. Removal won’t begin until at least 2008, and it could take the Energy Department up to three years to relocate all of the tailings.

The author is HCN associate editor.