SALT LAKE CITY – The Energy Department (search) on Wednesday proposed to move a heap of radioactive waste away from the banks of the Colorado River (search) — a victory for environmentalists and Western politicians who fear the debris could poison the Southwest's major source of drinking water.
The pile — a mostly open-air heap that sits on bare ground and is surrounded only by a chain-link fence — covers 130 acres near the town of Moab and consists of about 12 million tons of dirt and other waste from decades of uranium ore processing. It contains toxic chemicals and traces of uranium and other radioactive substances.
The Energy Department said it will recommend in an environmental impact statement that the waste be moved to a closed storage facility about 30 miles to the north, near Crescent Junction. The department said it plans no final decision until it reviews all public comment.
The site is the only decommissioned uranium mill overseen by the Energy Department that has yet to be cleaned up.
The immediate reason for concern is that the waste is seeping into the soil, getting into the groundwater and working its way into the Colorado River. The larger, doomsday fear is that a major flood on the Colorado could wash the stuff into the river and poison the Colorado River, which supplies drinking water to about 25 million people in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and other cities across the Southwest.
The waste began piling up in the 1950s after the dawn of the atomic age turned sleepy little communities in Utah into uranium mining boom towns. The department took control of it in 2001 after the most recent owner of the mill, Denver-based Atlas Corp. (search), declared bankruptcy in 1998 when it realized it could not afford to deal with the mess.
In November, the Energy Department outlined four options for the site. Three of them called for moving the waste by truck, rail or pipeline and burying it anywhere from 17 to 85 miles away in a hole that would be lined with clay and covered over. The cost could be as high as $543 million.
Option No. 4, which could cost only half as much, called for leaving the pile in place but covering it over with dirt and rocks.
But opponents, including Gov. Jon Huntsman (search), Utah's congressional delegation, scores of activists and the Environmental Protection Agency, said the waste is too dangerous to leave it where it is now, in a floodplain 750 feet from the banks of the Colorado.