Mining Company Waste Pile Draws Fire
A coalition of environmental groups is threatening legal action to force a mining company to move 10.5 million tons of uranium tailings that are leaching into the Colorado River, less than 750 feet away.
The waste pile stands 40 feet high in a V shape spanning roughly 150 acres on the 400-acre property of Atlas Corp., which generated much of the tailings for government weapons programs.
The mound, outside Moab, Utah, can be seen from the road that leads into Arches National Park, visited by nearly 1 million outdoors enthusiasts last year.
Studies by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Energy say contaminants from the tailings are polluting the river, source of water for millions in the West, and threatening several endangered species of fish. The wildlife service also said it considered capping the waste pile an inadequate remedy.
The Fish and Wildlife Service reported to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission its findings about the effects of the tailings on endangered fish species. The NRC, in turn, negotiates with Atlas about how best to deal with the waste.
The Fish and Wildlife Service opinion, which also conceded that the NRC doesn’t have the authority to force Atlas to move the tailings, prompted the Grand Canyon Trust, the Sierra Club and several Moab-area residents and businesses to announce April 21 that they planned to sue the Denver-based company in federal court in Utah, claiming it violated the Clean Water Act. Plaintiffs are required to serve notice 60 days before filing a federal lawsuit.
“We’re wanting them to know there are a lot of things at stake here besides the endangered fish,” said Bill Hedden of the Grand Canyon Trust. “This is drinking water for 19 million Americans.”
The Colorado River is used for drinking and agricultural purposes by people in Southern California as well as residents of Las Vegas, Phoenix and parts of Tucson.
But Richard Blubaugh, vice president of environmental and governmental affairs for Atlas, said his company is convinced that capping the tailings pile would be the best solution, since it would stop the spread of waterborne as well as airborne contaminants like radon that first made the tailings an issue in the late 1970s.
“When you look at your options, we continue to believe that moving forward quickly with the capping provides the best resolution to that concern,” he said.
Cullen Battle, an attorney for the coalition, said if the court finds that Atlas violated the Clean Water Act, the statute allows penalties of up to $20,000 a day paid to the government. Although the tailings have been a longtime issue, both Hedden and Battle insist the suit is not intended to punish Atlas.
“We’d rather they spend that money moving the tailings,” Battle said.
The coalition may have a difficult time proving its case. In March, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court ruling in Washington state that uranium tailings are not considered “pollutants” under the Clean Water Act.
But Battle said other byproducts do qualify as pollutants. “In this case, just ammonia alone makes the river about a mile downstream violate water-quality standards,” he said.
A study by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, whose figures were used in the Fish and Wildlife Service opinion, said water from the tailings was flowing into the river at a rate of between 6.7 gallons and 20 gallons per minute--or 9,648 to 360,000 gallons a day--creating a plume of contaminated water that stretches 1 to 1 1/2 miles downstream.
“It’s extraordinary for a single source to affect a great big river like the Colorado for any stretch,” Hedden said.
Hedden and Battle said that ultimately Congress will likely have to step in and help pay to move the tailings, although Blubaugh said talks along that vein could delay a solution.
The Department of Energy is already required to reimburse Atlas for 56% of any cleanup or capping costs, since much of the uranium was used in government weapons programs.
Blubaugh said moving the tailings would cost about $155 million, compared with about $16 million to $17 million to cap them.