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At the gateway of one of America's most popular and ecologically fragile wilderness recreation areas lies what some are calling a ticking time bomb. The Colorado River's blue line of water winds around Moab, Utah to Lake Mead, Arizona. It carries drinking water to millions of people in southern Utah, Nevada, Arizona and Southern California but, according to Utah's Division of Radiation Control, it also carries "radiological contaminants."

An abandoned Atlas Corporation uranium mill near Moab, which left behind 10.5 million tons of uranium waste, or "tailings," is slowly and steadily leaking toxins into the river. Atlas began shutting down the mill (next door to the Arches National Park and directly across the river from an 875-acre wetlands preserve) in the 1980s, and closed it completely in 1988. Two years later, Atlas began pumping water out of the tailings pile to prevent it from entering the river, but the company has only slowed the rate of leakage.

"Groundwater monitoring wells on the site reveal levels of uranium that exceed water-quality standards by a factor of 800," says Mark Peterson of the National Parks and Conservation Association. "There is 6,000 times more ammonia in the river bank near the pile than in the upstream river water." The tailings are also releasing radon, which can cause lung cancer.

Although there is no indication that the pollution has moved downriver to threaten the water supply, there is some concern about the bottom sediments and the fish in whose tissue some contaminants are showing up. "These toxins go into Lake Powell, Lake Mead, Las Vegas and even the Sea of Cortez," says Peterson. "The geographical spread of this thing is enormous."

Atlas Vice President Richard Blubaugh says that "changes in regulatory requirements and manpower availability" slowed the cleanup, which Atlas is not in a financial position to complete. Environmentalists want to see the tailings pile moved to a site about 14 miles north of Moab, out of the river course, but Blubaugh says that option would cost $150 million, compared to the $16 million cost of capping it in place to prevent further radon emissions. But there's worry that the capped tailings pile could be readily compromised by floods, erosion or seismic activity. Joe Holonich, chief of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Uranium Branch, admits, "The long-term impacts would be less if the tailings were moved," though he calls capping the pile "within the range of environmental acceptability."

A growing community of 7,000 people live less than three miles downstream, and many are watching and waiting to see what happens next.


National Parks and Conservation Association
100 Eagle Lake Drive
Fort Collins, CO 80524
Tel. (970) 493-2545

--Giselle Steele