Removing one of the West’s largest and most dangerous sources of carcinogens proves to be a long battle.
The Atlas Minerals Corporation and its predecessors left behind a mountain of radioactive waste — a 16-million-ton pile of uranium tailings along the Colorado River near Moab, Utah — when mining operations ceased in 1984. The contamination leaching from this pile impacts not only the river but also millions of downstream water users. The Atlas site is the largest site ever remediated by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and it has contributed significantly more pollution to the Colorado River than all nine tailings piles that have already been removed from the watershed. Furthermore, risk of catastrophic failure of the tailings pile is real — 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 of the tailings pile.
Over the past 25 years, several regulatory agencies have resisted efforts to clean up this poison. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission initially tried to literally cover the problem with dirt and rocks. Eventually, authority for cleaning up the site was transferred to DOE — but the agency resisted moving the wastes because of the high cost.
The Grand Canyon Trust played a major role in convincing the governors of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah to persuade DOE that the only solution acceptable was moving the wastes to a safe location.