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PLAN TO CAP MOAB TAILINGS DRAWS FIRE

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Traveling south on scenic U-191, motorists are greeted by one of the biggest eyesores in the Moab area: a 130-acre pile of uranium tailings, just outside of town.

In addition to being aesthetically displeasing, the 101/2 million tons of tailings release radon, which can cause lung cancer.With a notice to be printed Wednesday in the Federal Register, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission plans to reaffirm an earlier decision to cap the tailings to keep radon gas from escaping into the atmosphere.

But state environmental regulators and Grand County residents are not so sure that's a good idea.

"We're not ready to say the tailings shouldn't be capped," said Dianne Nielson, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality. "However, there is an alternative for moving the tailings and burying them (somewhere else). . . . We're not sure that the risks (of capping) are not greater than moving them."

Nielson briefed Gov. Mike Leavitt this week on the Atlas issue, informing him that the state may want to ask the NRC to re-evaluate the alternatives to capping.

"We know that this tailings pile is leaking," Nielson told Leavitt.

Some of the leakage is going into shallow substandard groundwater. Other leakage is occurring in the nearby Colorado River. Nielson said that the contaminants are quickly diluted in the river but that the cumulative effects are unknown.

"We're not sure that in the long-term, there won't be problems," Nielson said. "There may be concentrations of tailings in the river."

The tailings are adjacent to a mill that processed uranium from nearby mines from 1956 until 1984. Atlas Corp., a Denver company, has owned the mill since 1962. Atlas is currently disassembling the mill, selling off non-radioactive parts and burying radioactive material along with the tailings, said William Sinclair, director of the state Division of Radiation Control.

In nine months to a year, that mill - once the centerpiece of Moab's booming uranium-based economy - will be gone.

But the tailings, which have a temporary soil cover around them, will likely stay around for a while longer, as the state and NRC try to agree on whether to cap them with tons of igneous rock or remove them to a remote site, away from water sources and human activity.

One site considered originally by the NRC was a shale formation west of the Moab airport. Nielson told Leavitt that the site is a suitable alternative to capping. She warned, however, that moving the tailings could result in a release of radon that could harm workers and others in the area.

Atlas favors the capping proposal, saying it is the least costly, Nielson said.

Though approximately $36 million - $30 million from the federal government and $6 million from Atlas - is available for the remediation of the tailings site, no good estimate exists for the cost of capping vs. the cost of removal.

Further, Atlas' capping proposal "may not sufficiently address groundwater contamination below the tailings pile," according to a fact sheet prepared by the DEQ.

Nielson is concerned that the technical and economic data have not been evaluated since 1977 and wants the NRC to give state and Grand County officials a chance to review that data before it gives Atlas the final go-ahead on the capping proposal.

Sinclair said that the state may ask the NRC to consider an alternative to capping. If the state does ask and the NRC refuses, the state could file an administrative appeal, he said.

"We all want an (environmental impact statement) done on the alternatives," said Grand County Councilman Peter Haney. "There's just no answers to some very valid questions. They (NRC and Atlas) haven't addressed a ton of things."