History of the Atlas Mine Project
The U.S.’ first commercially operated uranium mill was built on the bank of the Colorado River near Moab, Utah, by Charlie Steen’s Uranium Reduction Company in 1956, and expanded by Atlas Minerals Corporation beginning in 1961. This facility extracted yellowcake uranium for nuclear bombs and reactors from ores trucked from over 300 mines on the Colorado Plateau. The slime-like wastes from the mill, laced with radium, uranium, thorium, polonium, ammonia, molybdenum, selenium and nitrates, were slurried into an unlined pond in the floodplain of the river. As more capacity was needed, contaminated soils were bulldozed up to raise the sides of the tailings impoundment. By 1984, when the mill was put on standby, this pile of mill wastes had grown to 16 million tons, covering 130 acres to a depth of 110 feet.1
The Atlas site is the fifth largest uranium tailings pile in the U.S. and by far the most dangerously polluting. Located in a deep, narrow valley with the town of Moab, irritating dust and heavier-than-air radon gas often blanketed the community in the days of mill operations, until Atlas was required to spray a synthetic binder over the tailings in the late 1980s. From the unlined bottom of the pile, toxic seepage has turned the groundwater into a radioactive broth of heavy metals and ammonia that bubbles up in the Colorado River just a few hundred feet away. The nearshore water in the river is so poisoned with ammonia that it is immediately lethal to any fish unlucky enough to swim there.2 Today’s discharge of contaminated groundwater into the river is estimated at 110,000 gallons/day.3 In wet years, when the spring flood in the Colorado River exceeds about 45,000 cfs, the river tops its banks and inundates the base of the tailings pile, leaving it not merely leaking into, but standing in the drinking water for 25 million downstream users in Nevada, Arizona, California, and Mexico. This level of flood was observed in 23 different years during the last century, most recently in 1993.4
Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, which supplies Colorado River water to 16 million customers in 230 cities, measured gradually increasing levels of radioactivity in the river at its Lake Havasu intake. Though these contaminants could not be definitively traced to the large pollution source at Atlas, the Water District strongly supported removal of the mill wastes in order to protect its water source. The Water District cited the following reasons:
The 16 million tons of Atlas tailings average 1,275 picoCuries/gram of gross alpha radiation (NRC FEIS on Atlas), and the groundwater beneath the site has 26 mg/l uranium, 590 times the NRC maximum level for groundwater at uranium mill sites (0.044 mg/l). Uranium levels in the river increase by 1,660% at the Atlas site.5
Uranium is one of the few proven carcinogens considered dangerous at any level.
Neither MWD nor any other major water district has the water treatment equipment in place to remove uranium; that would require membrane technology, which MWD last estimated would cost them at least $10–15 billion to install, and which would impose far higher M&O costs than what they are using. San Diego, Las Vegas, the Central Arizona Project, and any other area using Colorado River water would incur similar costs.
There is a credible risk of catastrophic failure of the tailings pile, either from slumping during inundation by high spring flows in the Colorado or from a flood in Moab Wash, which historically flowed directly through the location on which the tailings pile was built.
The federal government has already spent nearly $2 billion removing nine other tailings piles from the Colorado and its tributaries (in the DOE UMTRA Program), all of which were far smaller and much less polluting than Atlas. The primary motivation was the idea that protecting the Southwest’s source water is cheaper and more effective than trying to remove the contaminants from drinking water at the other end. It makes no sense to stop the program without cleaning up the largest and dirtiest of all the tailings piles near the river.
After the mill was shut down, in 1984, Atlas Corporation began negotiating with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) about how to clean up the site. Their proposal was to place a soil cover over the pile and shore it up with stone riprap to resist erosion. Pollution regulations would be changed at the site to accommodate the ongoing poisoning of the river.6
This plan fell apart with the 1998 announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that leakage from the pile is jeopardizing four species of endangered fish in the river. To avoid legal consequences, Atlas had to also restore the groundwater to some measure of health. Technologically, that may not be possible without removing the tailings pile, but even the engineers who think it can be done acknowledge that it will be expensive and time consuming: the State of Utah has estimated the cost of groundwater treatment alone at $77 million, and it might easily cost more. Covering and stabilizing the pile against floods will cost at least an additional $25 million,7 and leakage is expected to continue for hundreds of years.8 The safer and more sure-fire option of removing the pile is estimated to cost $250–300 million.9 All of these costs estimates have been shown by time to be woefully understated. In early 2009, relocation of the tailings is expected to cost upwards of $1 billion, with perhaps higher costs for the rejected alternative of capping in place.
Faced with such projected costs, Atlas immediately filed for bankruptcy, reorganizing around a Bolivian gold property, and leaving behind nothing more than a reclamation bond valued at $5.25 million, a few water rights, and title to the blighted property. The NRC, which is purely a regulatory agency with no money or capability to clean up uranium mills, was caught in a bind. Abandoned uranium mills throughout the Southwest had been made the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Energy by a law passed in 1978.10 Mills active at that time, like Atlas, were supposed to clean up their own messes. The DOE is nearly finished with its remediation program, having stabilized or moved twenty former uranium mills and their tailings piles. Every other one located near a river has been moved to a safer place. Now, Atlas, far larger and more polluting than any of the DOE sites,11 was suddenly abandoned, but it had legally missed the boat. DOE had neither money nor authority to clean it up. The only sensible solution was special legislation transferring authority from the NRC to the DOE. In the meantime, accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers took over the pathetic Atlas assets and was named reclamation trustee of the site by NRC and the State of Utah. Their responsibility was to try to siphon some of the liquid out of the tailings and generally stabilize the pile pending a legislative solution.
In 1999, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers overwhelmingly passed authorizing legislation that laid out a strategy for solving the problem.12 The Atlas site was turned over to the U.S. Department of Energy. The law contains a provision requiring DOE to move the tailings away from the river and restore the groundwater, and another one requiring DOE to consult with the National Academy of Sciences to determine the best reclamation options. Like all authorizing legislation, it did not appropriate any actual money for the work, so in late April of 2001 PricewaterhouseCoopers filed notice of its resignation from the trusteeship on the grounds that there was no further funding available.
In the intervening years, DOE took control of the Atlas site and begun planning for the eventual reclamation. Actions to control dust and perform triage on the ground and surface water n hamstrung by insufficient budgets, but systems are now in place to accomplish those tasks. DOE evaluated a reclamation in place plan, estimated at the time to cost $160 million plus groundwater remediation for 80 years, versus four relocation possibilities estimated to cost between $400 million for removal to Klondike Flats and $600 million for a slurry operation to White Mesa.
The National Academies consulted with DOE as required in the legislation, but studiously avoided making a recommendation about what should happen with the tailings. Their report pointed out that the river will eventually sweep the pile away if it is not relocated, and contained a warning that reclamation actions that are cheap and easy in the short run often end up costing more as the decades wear on.
DOE studies confirmed the size and intensity of the groundwater contamination at the site. However, as the pile continues to seep into the river over the years, the rate is naturally declining with gradual dewatering. This reduction in contamination is offset by new findings from shallow wells showing that, on two occasions in the last thousand years, floods in the river have scoured away the entire ground surface on which the pile sits to a depth of 25 feet. Thus, leaving the wastes in place would have essentially guaranteed that they will eventually wash into the river. Then Utah Governor Olene Walker responded to this study by writing DOE Secretary Spencer Abraham in May 2004 requesting that he expedite the process of selecting a reclamation alternative that will remove the tailings from the riverbank.
On April 6, 2005, DOE Secretary Spencer Abraham announced that the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the Moab mill site would recommend moving the 16 million tons (as now estimated) of radioactive waste by train to the Crescent Junction site thirty miles north of Colorado River. This is the outcome for which the Trust fought for 9 years. Shipments of wastes to a new disposal site at Crescent Junction will commence in April 2009. Relocation is estimated to take 20 years and cost upwards of $1 billion.
The victory was the result of a remarkable outpouring of public comment on the Draft EIS. Grand Canyon Trust played a key role in convincing the governors of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah to send a strongly worded letter to DOE stating that the only solution acceptable to them was the removal of the wastes to a safe location. The congressional coalition we organized also wrote strong letters, as did the major downstream water districts, which lobbied with us in Washington. The State of Utah commissioned a study by the USGS showing that the tailings pile lies directly in the path of large floods in the river, a point recently reinforced in the minds of many by the destructive floods experienced by those living adjacent to the Santa Clara and Virgin Rivers this winter.
The EPA filed official comments to the effect that capping the wastes would be environmentally unacceptable and should be dropped from consideration in the FEIS. The National Park Service and Fish & Wildlife Service also asked that the wastes be moved to a safer place. Thousands of individuals and many conservation groups also filed comments. The story received media coverage as far away as India.