Uranium Tailings Heap Could Be Hauled Off Colorado Riverbank

WASHINGTON, DC, July 26, 2005 (ENS) - The U.S. Energy Department Monday released its final proposal for dealing with nearly 12 million tons of radioactive mine tailings left from a private uranium mine operation. The tailings are now sitting in a massive heap on the west bank of the Colorado River near Moab, Utah and immediately adjacent to Arches National Park.

In its final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Moab site, the Department of Energy (DOE) says the preferred course of action is to move the tailings by rail more than 30 miles from the Colorado River, to a proposed site at Crescent Junction, Utah. This new site consists of undeveloped land administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management interspersed with lands owned by the state of Utah.

"Taking all facts into account, we believe the recommendations issued today provide the best solution to cleaning up Moab and protecting the river," said Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. "The Colorado River is the life blood of the Southwest."

Utah Congressman Jim Matheson has said that the Utah Congressional delegation, together with Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., have all urged Secretary Samuel Bodman to move the pile. Matheson submitted comments to the draft EIS in February asking that the tailings be moved, a request signed by a bipartisan group of 20 House members from Utah, Arizona and California.


The pile of radioactive tailings on the Colorado River three miles from Moab, Utah. (Photo courtesy DOE)
Dennis Underwood, vice president of Colorado River Resources for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, has said 18 million of his customers get drinking water from the Colorado River.

"Metropolitan strongly supports the off-site disposal option, as this is the only option which offers long-term permanent protection to the quality of water received by downstream Colorado River users," said Underwood.

Total cost of removing the pile of tailings to Crescent Junction is estimated at $392 million over an eight year period.

In the development and preparation of this EIS, the Energy Department entered into agreements with 12 federal, tribal, state, and local agencies to be cooperating agencies including six federal agencies - the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The state of Utah and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe participated as cooperating agencies as did Grand County and San Juan County, as well as the City of Blanding and the Community of Bluff.

The Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project Site was occupied by a uranium ore processing facility owned and operated by the Uranium Reduction Company and later by Atlas under a license issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The mill ceased operations in 1984 and has been dismantled except for one building. The site covers roughly 400 acres and includes a 130 acre uranium mill tailings pile that occupies much of the western portion. Uranium mill tailings are the radioactive residue from the processing of uranium ore.

Decommissioning of the mill began in 1988, and an interim cover was placed on the tailings pile between 1989 and 1995.

In 2001 Congress transferred responsibility for cleanup at Moab to the Energy Department.

In exploring whether to move the pile of tailings or leave it in place, many reasons for moving it were advanced in public comments to the DOE after the draft environmental impact statement released in November 2004.

The pile should be relocated because it emits radon gas and poses a public health risk, commenters said. The DOE agreed, but pointed out that under any of the off-site disposal alternatives, during the period of surface remediation, there will be some increased public risk stemming from the need to disturb the existing tailings pile cover and transport the radioactive tailings.

The pile should be relocated because it has no liner and will eventually come into permanent contact with ground water, commenters said, and because contamination is migrating under the river and affecting the Matheson Wetlands Preserve.

The pile should be relocated because it is leaching contaminated ground water into the river, which poses a threat to four species of endangered fish. In addition, episodic flooding of the site has occurred in the past, will occur in the future, and will wash contaminants into the river, commenters said.

Many comments expressed concern that a catastrophic failure of the disposal cell caused by an earthquake or a 500-year flood could spill the contents of the pile into the Colorado River and thereby pose an unacceptable downstream risk to human health, the environment, and the recreational use and value of the river. While the DOE agreed with many of the other reasons for moving the pile, the agency did not agree that earthquakes are a concern, and said a catastrophic flood could be expected only once in 500 years.

Still, the DOE selected as its preferred alternative removal of the pile 30 miles away from the river.

In addition to moving the pile, the DOE will develop and implement a ground water compliance strategy for the Moab site.

Ground water at the site was contaminated by ore processing operations. The Colorado River adjacent to the site has been affected by this contamination, mostly due to ground water discharge. The primary contaminant of concern in ground water and surface water is ammonia. Other contaminants of potential concern are manganese, copper, sulfate, and uranium.

The $906,000 per year cost of ground water remediation would continue for an estimated 75 to 80 years, according to the EIS.

In addition, some 39,700 tons of radioactive tailings may have been removed from the Moab millsite and used as construction or fill material at homes, businesses, public buildings, and vacant lots in and near Moab, the DOE explains in the environmental impact statement.

As a result, the agency says, these vicinity properties may have elevated concentrations of radium-226 that exceed the maximum allowable concentration limits. On the basis of preliminary surveys conducted in the 1970s by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 130 potential sites may require remediation. However, using past statistics and experience, the DOE says that only about 98 vicinity properties would actually need to be remediated.


The radioactive tailings are leaching thousands of gallons of contaminants daily into the Colorado River. (Photo courtesy Office of Congressman Matheson)
In the final environmental impact statement, the DOE analyzed the possibilities of on-site disposal of the contaminated materials and off-site disposal at one of three alternative locations in Utah using one or more transportation options: truck, rail, or slurry pipeline.

The EIS evaluates the environmental consequences that may result from implementing the reasonable alternatives, including health impacts to the public, impacts to ground water and surface water, traffic impacts, and impacts to other resources.

The EIS also analyzes a No Action alternative, under which DOE would not implement any surface or ground water remedial actions.

The tailings are now located in a pile that averages 94 feet above the Colorado River floodplain and is about 750 feet from the Colorado River. The pile was constructed with five terraces and consists of an outer compact embankment of coarse tailings, an inner impoundment of both coarse and fine tailings, and an interim cover of soils taken from the site outside the pile area.

Debris from dismantling the mill buildings and associated structures was placed in an area at the south end of the pile and covered with contaminated soils and fill. Radiation surveys indicate that some soils outside the pile also contain radioactive contaminants at concentrations above EPA standards.

For the off-site disposal alternative preferred by the DOE, the agency says it would remove about 11.9 million tons of contaminated material - the estimated 10.5-million ton tailings pile; an estimated 600,000 tons of soil that was placed on top of the pile; 566,000 tons of subpile soil; 234,000 tons of off-pile contaminated site soil; and 39,700 tons of vicinity property material that would be brought to the Moab site before shipment to an off-site location. In addition to the Crescent Junction site that is the DOE's preferred location for the tailings, the final EIS explored moving them to Klondike and to White Mill Mesa.

The White Mill Mesa alternative was rejected because of its proximity to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. "The White Mesa Mill disposal alternative would present unique and unavoidable potential adverse impacts to at least 10 traditional cultural properties," the EIS states.

Although only the Moab site and the White Mesa Mill site have been field surveyed for cultural sites, some cultural sites would probably be adversely affected under any of the proposed action alternatives, including on-site disposal. Under any of the action alternatives, four to 11 cultural sites at the Moab site could be adversely affected, according to the EIS.

But in addition, the EIS states that the pile should not be relocated to White Mesa Mill by truck due to the major traffic impact on highly congested areas, especially in Moab and Blanding.

Other traffic impacts were considered for each of the alternatives considered, and transport by rail was chosen as the least environmentally harmful and disruptive.

In its Biological Opinion added to the EIS, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed with the DOE determination that off-site disposal at the Crescent Junction site would not jeopardize the continued existence of plant species, nor would bird or terrestrial animal species be jeopardized.

The Service also concurred with DOE’s determination that off-site disposal and active ground water remediation at the Moab site would not jeopardize endangered aquatic species and critical habitat in the Colorado River at Moab, as long as the conservation recommendations included in the Biological Opinion are followed.

The Energy Department will specify its final decision on which alternatives to implement in a Record of Decision, to be issued no sooner than 30 days after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issues a Notice of Availability of the final EIS in the Federal Register.

Copies of Remediation of the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings, Grand and San Juan Counties, Utah, Final Environmental Impact Statement will be placed in the Moab Project public reading rooms in the Grand County Public Library, Blanding Branch Library, and the White Mesa Ute Administrative Building.

A copy will also be available on the Moab Project website at http://gj.em.doe.gov/moab, on the DOE website at http://www.eh.doe.gov/nepa, and in the DOE Public Reading Room in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Questions or comments about the Moab, Utah Project can be sent to: moabcomments@gjo.doe.gov or call toll free at 1–800–637–4575.