Energy Secretary Thomas Grumbly played Santa Claus this week to the White Mesa Utes and other American Indians in San Juan County.

He decided that the Energy Department will not haul 2.6 million cubic yards of radioactive uranium tailings from Monticello to a site south of Blanding.Grumbly ruled on Thursday that the tailings, which are part of a federal Superfund site, will be disposed of not far from where they are currently located in Monticello.

"I guess this is what I'd say is a good Christmas present," said Norman Begay, who led the Indians' fight against the plan.

The DOE had been exploring a proposal to haul the tailings to a uranium mill owned by Denver-based Energy Fuels Nuclear Inc. That mill property is located about three miles south of Blanding and about four miles north of the White Mesa reservation. It is also surrounded by Indian ruins and burial grounds, which the Indians consider extremely sacred.

"We're very happy now our burial grounds won't be disturbed again," said Begay. "My people are very happy about it and feel relief that their ancestors are not going to be disturbed."

The Indians' attorney, Cullen Battle, said he believes the victory is even broader.

"It is less likely now that southeastern Utah will become a regional disposal site for radioactive waste," Battle said. "The White Mesa reservation now has a future. Many were predicting its demise if (Energy Fuels) became the site of a radioactive waste dump."

For the past year, the fight over what to do with the tailings has sharply divided the community.

County and municipal officials were generally in favor of the haul because it would bring more money to Blanding businesses. It would have also resulted in some upgrading of U.S. Highway 191 between Monticello and the Energy Fuels property.

Indians and their friends staged protest marches. The White Mesa tribal director was forced to resign. Activists charged environmental racism. Some local officials accused Indians of slander.

Last fall, the controversy became so heated that Grumbly appointed a neutral facilitator and a local citizens advisory board to help the community find a consensus.

A consensus was never found. The 19-member advisory board voted on Dec. 13 to haul the tailings to Energy Fuels. But the vote was a close 10-9 - clearly no strong mandate.

Recognizing the problems associated with a haul, Grumbly's decision reversed the advisory board's vote.

"I do not believe the potential risk of a truck haul is warranted for these low-level radioactive materials when another acceptable option is available," Grumbly said.

That other option, which is to dispose of the tailings in Monticello, was the original DOE decision in 1990. The DOE re-con-si-dered that decision at the request of Energy Fuels, which stood to profit from the truck haul to its mill.

Now that Grumbly has reaffirmed his 1990 decision, the controversy should die.

"Let me assure you . . . that this decision is final," said Grumbly, anticipating that "there will be efforts to delay or disrupt the process further" in the hope that the DOE will reverse itself again and select the truck haul option.

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"Such activities will not be successful," Grumbly said.

No one could be reached at Energy Fuels headquarters for comment on Friday.

In a letter to the San Juan County residents, Grumbly promised that the DOE would help repair roadways and curbs damaged during past government-related activities and that all roads would be maintained during upcoming operations.

He also promised to "maximize the use" of San Juan County labor in the tailings project.

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