Uranium Tailings Solution Still Under Wraps

Uranium Tailings Solution Still Under Wraps

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Energy Department has decided not to disclose its solution for the uranium tailings piled near the Colorado River in southeastern Utah until it issues its final environmental impact statement.

Federal agencies commonly identify their preferred alternative when they release the draft of the impact statement, which in the case of the Atlas tailings is expected in April.

With the agency opting not to disclose its preferences until it releases its final EIS in October, the public will have just 45 days to weigh in on the possible solutions.

The DOE is considering five alternatives, ranging from capping the tailings in place on the banks of the Colorado to pumping it by pipeline to the White Mesa uranium recycling mill.

Critics claim the agency is being cowardly, possibly because it is going to recommend capping the tailings.

"They don't want to put out a preferred alternative, because they don't want to take any heat from the public," Moab resident Bill Love said.

Sharon Buccino of the Natural Resources Defense Council said, "The Department of Energy should put its cards on the table so that the affected public has a meaningful opportunity to react."

Don Metzler, the DOE's Moab project manager, said his agency is not being evasive, just thorough in its information-gathering and receptive to all public comments.

"They (at headquarters) are not trying to hide behind anything," he said. "It appears in our minds we are doing the right thing here."

Ammonia, heavy metals and mildly radioactive materials are seeping into the Colorado River, possibly putting endangered fish and downstream water supplies at risk.

The Energy Department took over the site in October 2001 and is trying to decide how to dispose of it safely for at least 1,000 years. Congress ordered it to get advice from the National Academy of Sciences.

The 94-foot-tall waste pile came from Moab's rich uranium deposits, which were mined in the 1950s for nuclear bombs. The Uranium Reduction Co. sold its mill in 1962 to Atlas Corp., which ran it sporadically until declaring bankruptcy in 1998. The Energy Department took over the site in 2001.

Aside from the unlikely alternative of doing nothing at all, capping the tailings in place would be the cheapest solution, at about $249 million.

However, opponents of the plan contend the river could change its course and eat into the pile.

Area residents, the state, members of the Utah congressional delegation and California lawmakers want the 12 million tons of mining waste buried somewhere where it cannot leach into water supplies.

The Energy Department is considering possibly moving the tailings to Crescent Junction, about 28 miles northwest of Moab; to Klondike Flats, about 17 miles north of Moab; or to International Uranium Corp.'s White Mesa Mill, 85 miles south of Moab.

The Ute Mountain Indian tribe, which has land near the mill, opposes that alternative.

Hauling the to Klondike Flats or Crescent Junction would cost about $469 million by rail, $407 million by truck or $472 million by pipeline. Slurrying it to White Mesa by pipeline would cost about $543 million.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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