|-- Vol. 26 No. 18
| October 3, 1994
Parental care for uranium tailings only goes so far
by 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
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
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
"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 poplulation 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
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
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,
former HCN intern