The DoE has agreed to clean up the 33.5m-high mound of uranium tailings which stands 150 – 213m from the bank of the Colorado. The pile is 1098km upstream from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s Colorado River Aqueduct. The Aqueduct provides drinking water for 17 million people in the Southwest US and Southern California.

The tailings contain low levels of radioactivity from uranium and radium, as well as hazardous materials such as arsenic, lead and mercury left by uranium mining operations using the site between 1956 to 1984. It is estimated that moving the tailings away from Moab will cost up to $300 million.

According to the World Information Service on Energy (WISE) (see related story), the tailings pile is the fifth largest in the US. WISE claims the uranium content in groundwater near the Moab site is 530 times higher than US EPA standards for groundwater at uranium tailings piles. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California says this groundwater is seeping into the Colorado at a rate of 189 litres/minute.

In April 1998, a coalition of NGOs sued the Atlas Corporation, which owned the site between 1962 and 1984, for violations of environmental law. This month, a further coalition sent a letter urging Congress to support legislation which would authorise the relocation of the tailings to an area away from water and people. Denver-based Atlas filed for bankruptcy two years ago.

Under an agreement signed by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, and still to be approved by Congress, the DoE will seek funding to remove the tailings and clean up the site. The clean-up will be regulated by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), with participation from the state of Utah.

Asked when Congress is likely to approve the removal of the pile, Congressman Bob Filner (D-San Diego) told edie: “We hope to introduce legislation in the House of Representatives in March. Our legislative focus will be holding hearings on the legislation so that the entire Congress realises that one-seventh of the United States’ population, or 25 million people, lives under the threat of contaminated drinking water. This is the year to push through moving the uranium mine tailings pile near Moab.”

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