DOE Keeps Mum on Preferred Option for Uranium Tailings Piled Near Moab, Utah
The long-awaited draft environmental impact study of what to do with 12 million tons of radioactive uranium ore tailings piled next to the Colorado River near Moab contains a mystery: What does the Department of Energy believe is the best solution?
The 1,000-page study, released this week after several months of delay, outlines five possibilities, including capping the debris from the now-defunct Atlas Corp. where it sits, moving it off-site to one of three locations or doing nothing.
But unlike most EIS drafts, there is no express preferred alternative -- and DOE won't say what it is until after the 90-day public comment period ends in mid-February.
Don Metzler, DOE's Moab project manager, said Tuesday that not offering a preference keeps all options open. But others, including Moab residents, environmentalists and members of Utah's congressional delegation, said DOE's dodge subverts good science as well as legislative intent.
Moab resident Sarah Fields said she has read the 7-pound study's executive summary and will spend the next week looking over the full report. So far, she is not convinced the DOE fully studied all the issues identified in a National Academy of Sciences 2002 study, whose recommendations included consideration of the anticipated migration of the Colorado River toward the pile.
"I don't think they address that in this report," Fields said.
Added Bill Hedden, executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust, "Now is the time to read it very carefully and see what analyses 1/8DOE3/8 has offered to help us make the right decision here. Those details will be very important -- and very telling."
No matter which of the alternatives the DOE eventually chooses, it will clean up the groundwater around the site at an estimated cost of $10.75 million for design and construction plus an annual cost of $906,000.
The cheapest alternative for the tailings would be to do nothing, which is unlikely.Capping the tailings in place would cost $166 million and take seven to 10 years to complete. Off-site disposal would cost between $329 million and $464 million, depending on which alternative was chosen.
Moving the tailings would take about eight years.
Money, as always, will be key. The draft EIS presented all alternatives with the assumption that Congress would fund them, but noted that if the funds weren't forthcoming, or were pulled back, "there could be higher human health risks to exposed populations than the EIS estimates because of their more prolonged exposure to radiation from the open Moab pile or the incomplete new disposal cell."
Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, who has been instrumental in getting the more than $6 million spent to date on studies and remediation, continues to support moving the tailings, said his spokeswoman Mary Jane Collipriest.
The DOE study estimates 12 latent cancer fatalities among the public with any of the alternatives except doing nothing, which would cause 26 latent cancer fatalities.
The Energy Department's ultimate decision will affect 25 million people in four states who rely on the Colorado River for drinking water.
The uranium, ammonia and other pollutants also threaten the endangered southwest willow flycatcher, a bird that nests along the river, and four endangered fish.
Alison Heyrend, spokeswoman for 2nd District Rep. Jim Matheson, said Matheson's "unequivocal position is this tailings pile needs to be moved. Gov. Olene Walker in June wrote to the DOE and also urged the agency to remove the tailings.
Bill Sinclair, deputy director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, said the state and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have hired the U.S. Geological Survey to do a study on how the Colorado River has migrated over time. The study is expected by early January.
"At sometime in the future, if you have the possibility of the river migrating and inundating the pile, that's a problem," Sinclair said. "The river migration is a deal breaker."
Tribune correspondent Lisa Church contributed to this report.
Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News