Uranium Waste Pile Makes Colorado River Most Endangered

WASHINGTON, DC, April 14, 2004 (ENS) - "The Colorado River is not yet the most polluted river in the country, but it could become so if the current problems are allowed to fester," said Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers, announcing that the Colorado tops the organization's annual Most Endangered Rivers list. "A concerted national solution is necessary to problems that reach far beyond the banks of the river."

The most dangerous situation on the Colorado River is the Atlas uranium milling site across the Colorado River from Moab, Utah. There an estimated 110,000 gallons of radioactive groundwater seeps into the river each day from an unlined riverbank impoundment where some 10.5 million tons of radioactive waste is stored. Ammonia is also leaching into the waters of the Colorado River from the tailings pile.

Radioactive dust from the piles, dispersed by the persistent local winds, settles far from the sites. The piles produce radon gas, a deadly substance that has caused a five-fold increase in lung cancer among uranium miners.

American Rivers and its partners would like to see the waste moved away from the river, which supplies drinking water for 25 million people, including residents of Los Angeles and Las Vegas.


The Atlas uranium milling site beside the Colorado River awaits the decision of the U.S. Energy Department. (Photos courtesy American Rivers)
The second largest uranium waste pile in the United States, the Atlas tailings resulted from operations of a uranium mill at the Moab site from 1956 until 1984. The facility is now owned by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Uranium is no longer processed at the site, and the mill has been dismantled except for one building.

The Energy Department will soon disclose its plans for the Atlas milling site, but the environmental groups say the federal agency has signaled its intention not to relocate the material to a safer location.

Donald Metzler, DOE's Program Manager for the Moab Mill Project, has said that the DOE has not yet made a decision regarding whether the radioactive pile will be capped in place or moved to an off-site location.

The Draft Environmental Impact Statement expected shortly will announce the preferred alternative for groundwater remediation so that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be able to complete its Biological Opinion.

One of the partners for the Most Endangered River Initiative is the Colorado Riverkeeper, John Weisheit, a river guide who works daily from an office located within a mile of the Atlas Mill site. "Visitors come from all over the world to enjoy the Colorado River through Canyonlands National Park downstream," says Weisheit.

"They enjoy the scenery, the rapids and all the good things one expects to find from such a treasured landscape. Someday a big flood like those that raged through these canyons in the 19th century is going to lift that pile into the river and irradiate Canyonlands National Park. It is pure folly not to move this pile away from the floodplain of the Colorado River."

"As long as this material remains on the riverbank, it poisons the river every day and threatens water supplies with a catastrophic failure. New evidence suggests that disposing of it in an underground salt formation might be an affordable alternative," said Bill Hedden with the Grand Canyon Trust. "The Energy Department must now expedite studies of this alternative to confirm if it is truly the ideal solution."

Sarah Fields, who also lives within a mile of the waste pile, has engaged herself in efforts to remove the radioactive heap for more than 10 years. Fields is the coordinator of the Nuclear Waste Committee of the Sierra Club Glen Canyon Group.

"It is a fact that for thousands of years this tailings pile will remain toxic and radioactive to humans and animal life," she said. "In the scale of hundreds of years, it is inevitable that a catastrophic flood will consume this pile and devastate the down river environment. As irresponsible as it was to put this pile by the River, it is equally as irresponsible to let it remain by the river."

Dangerous as it is, the radioactive tailings pile is not the only environmental problem on the Colorado River. Of equal concern to American Rivers are the rising predictions for human waste reaching the river from riverfront boomtowns in California and Arizona. This area has the largest concentration of people in the United States using septic tanks.


The Colorado River in Colorado (Photo courtesy Colorado Division of Water Resources)
Overloaded septic systems allow increasing quantities of nitrates to seep into groundwater and the Colorado River. High nitrate levels in drinking water can deplete oxygen in infants' blood, creating blue baby syndrome, and they are suspected to cause some types of cancer. Local communities' efforts to upgrade their wastewater infrastructures have been hampered by lack of federal support, American Rivers says.

In Henderson, Nevada, a suburb of Las Vegas, the toxic chemical ammonium perchlorate is trickling into the river from a former military facility. Perchlorate, measured in Lake Mead at concentrations as high as 24 parts per billion, interferes with proper thyroid function and disrupts the body's normal hormonal balance. Produce grown with Colorado River water often contains trace amounts of perchlorate and is sold at supermarkets nationwide. Even as scientists debate how much exposure to perchlorate is safe, Congress is considering relieving the Department of Defense of the responsibility to clean up after itself at Henderson and elsewhere, American Rivers and its partners warn.

"Our tests last year found that perchlorate levels in winter lettuce irrigated by the Colorado were four times higher the EPA's recommended safe dose for a glass of drinking water," said Bill Walker, west coast vice president for the Environmental Working Group, which has studied perchlorate contamination since 1999.

"The cropland irrigated by the river produces most of the lettuce and other produce sold nationwide during the winter months, which means that perchlorate is not just a local or regional problem, but a concern for every American."

The groups point out that the administration of President George W. Bush has reduced the number of Clean Water Act enforcement actions, levied fewer and smaller fines on lawbreakers, and created new loopholes on behalf of polluting industries. The administration failed to disclose the results of an internal audit, which found that one-quarter of all major industrial and wastewater treatment facilities are in "significant violation" of the law at any one time.

"The president's clean water record can be summed up in three words - soft on crime," Wodder said.

The White House and Congress have also shortchanged communities seeking a helping hand to clean up their waters. The federal government's share of sewage treatment construction costs has fallen from 20 percent to just five percent - and the White House seeks to cut federal funding by another third in 2005.

There are 10 rivers in 26 states profiled in this year's America's Most Endangered Rivers report, released today. The report highlights the 10 rivers facing the most uncertain future rather than the worst chronic problems.


The Big Sunflower River in Mississippi could be forever altered by flood control plans.
Mississippi's Big Sunflower River is number two on the list of Most Endangered Rivers due to two costly flood control projects - the Yazoo Pumps. American Rivers says this single project will drain and damage seven times more wetlands than all the nation's private developers harm in one year.

Without firm opposition from the EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Corps of Engineers will also dredge more than 100 miles of the Big Sunflower's riverbed, destroying even more wetlands, stirring up a toxic stew of pesticides, and endangering the health of those who eat fish caught in the river, American Rivers says.

Dams on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers have caused steep declines in the Snake River's once abundant wild salmon population, with all the river's runs either extinct or sliding toward extinction. Studies show that local economies would benefit from thousands of new jobs and hundreds of millions of new dollars if wild salmon were restored to the Snake River.

Number four, the Tennessee River, is overloaded with large amounts of inadequately treated sewage from wastewater systems that discharge into the river.

Two rivers share the number five slot - the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers that run through the coal country of western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Thousands of abandoned mines are leaking acid and other toxic substances into streams that feed these rivers. The pollution threatens 42 public drinking water intakes, and thousands of private wells, as well as fish and wildlife. American Rivers is calling for Congress to reauthorize the Abandoned Mine Land Trust Fund which supports efforts to fix this problem.

The Spokane River in Idaho and Wyoming is number six on the list, threatened with groundwater withdrawal applications, sewage discharge, and mine waste.

In the number seven spot is the Housatonic River of Massachusetts and Connecticut, contaminated with some of the highest levels of toxic PCBs in the nation.

Number eight is Florida's Peace River where phosphate mining in the watershed has been the source of environmental problems for many years. Now large new mines are planned.

At number nine is a waterway that is not yet badly polluted. Despite its close proximity to Columbus, Ohio, Big Darby Creek has escaped many impacts of urban sprawl. But American Rivers warns that unless state and local governments adopt and enforce river-conscious land use planning in the Big Darby watershed, one of the highest quality streams left in the Midwest may become "just another polluted, flood prone urban ditch."

The tenth most endangered river is America's longest, the Mississippi. Manipulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for years, the Mississippi "faces ecological collapse" says American Rivers, with negative economic impacts to tourism and recreation industries worth $21 billion per year.