Mountain of mine waste may move after all


MOAB, Utah - A decade-long battle over a 10.5 million-ton uranium mill tailings site near the Colorado River (HCN, 4/13/98) may finally be coming to an end.

Here, on Jan. 14, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced his support for a plan to transfer control of the abandoned Atlas Corp. mill site to his agency. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission currently has responsibility for the site, but not the authority to move the tailings pile. With the Department of Energy in charge, the situation is likely to change: Richardson said the Clinton administration will support a proposal by Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, to move the pile away from the river's floodplain.

As part of the plan, 84,000 acres of Department of Energy land in the Book Cliffs of northeastern Utah will be returned to the Northern Ute tribe. Tribal leaders have agreed to pay the department about 8 percent of any royalties earned from oil and gas development on the land. The money will then be used by the federal government to help pay for the Atlas cleanup. The tribe will also work with the Bureau of Land Management to protect a 75-mile stretch of land on the west side of the Green River.

"Today, we're doing the right thing - the right thing for the environment, the right thing for the Utes, the right thing for the state of Utah, and the right thing for the American people," Richardson said during his stop at the Atlas site.

Last year, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced it would approve a plan to leave the tailings in place. Though the agency's studies showed that the pile was leaking uranium, ammonia and nitrates into the Colorado River, agency officials argued that contamination levels posed no threat to water users.

State representatives and officials from Grand County refused to accept that decision. They lobbied Congress to hand the tailings over to the Department of Energy, and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt visited the site in 1998 to support the idea. In cooperation with the Grand Canyon Trust, a Flagstaff, Ariz.-based conservation group, Grand County sued the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in federal court over its plan to leave the tailings in place.

Representatives from Nevada, Arizona and California, concerned about the effect of the tailings on their drinking water supplies, joined the push to move the pile. The political pressure from neighboring states and from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California finally convinced the Department of Energy to step in.

The chairman of the California water district, Phillip Pace, came to Moab for Richardson's announcement. "Our water agency serves 16.5 million people in Southern California," Pace said. "I hope the people of this country realize the service you are doing for them."

Not a done deal

Grand County Council chairwoman Kimberly Schappert said she was cautiously optimistic. "It's not over yet," Schappert said. "But having Secretary Richardson here today is evidence that it's about to pay off."

The Grand Canyon Trust has a few misgivings about the idea, especially about the lands slated for oil and gas development in northern Utah. "We think having the DOE step in and take responsibility for Atlas is great," says Bill Hedden of the group's Moab office. "But we have questions about parts of the proposal that affect the Green River. We are very concerned about how the wild lands in that area will be affected." The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is also worried about the effects of the land transfer on wilderness-quality lands.

It may take some time for Moab to get its floodplain back. Cannon has introduced legislation in Congress that would transfer the pile to the Department of Energy, but many congressional leaders are reluctant to give any more projects to the department, much less foot any part of the $300 million bill for the cleanup.

Still, Cannon said he believes Congress will eventually approve the deal. "This is going to happen," he said, pointing at the tailings site. "This is not going to be here in 10 or 15 years."

Lisa Church writes from Moab.

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