Parental care for uranium tailings only goes so far

  • Radioactive Atlas Minerals Co. tailings on the Colorado River in Utah

    Peter McBride

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 river.

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 costly.

"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."

Poe, the 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.

In 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 locations.

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 November.

"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."

Although Atlas 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 analysis.

"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 near Moab.

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 population center.

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 water.

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 area."

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.

Poe 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 downstream.

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 members.

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 Register.

Peter McBride is a former HCN intern.

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