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Tailings a step nearer capping

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Atlas Corp. has cleared another hurdle in a plan to cap uranium mill tailings near Moab rather than move them.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Friday reported Atlas' proposal to permanently cap the 10.5 million-ton tailings pile is "environmentally acceptable" if the company meets certain requirements and can show ammonia levels in the Colorado River will be reduced to levels specified by the Fish and Wildlife Service to prevent jeopardizing endangered fish species.But environmental and Grand County officials who want the pile moved somewhere else fear the capping project will not be thorough enough and are dismayed it could require more federal than company funds -- 56 percent to 44 percent, respectively.

"What has become completely clear with yesterday's decision is that Atlas defaulted on its obligation to clean up the site . . . the NRC's regulation department has completely failed and (the problem) will land in the lap of the U.S. taxpayers," Bill Hedden, Utah conservation director for the Grand Canyon Trust, said Saturday.

The tailings pile, which spans 150 acres and sits 750 feet from the Colorado River and across the highway from Arches National Park, is left over from uranium processing for Cold War nuclear projects.

Atlas' proposed project, which has yet to receive NRC approval, includes covering the pile with earth and rock to minimize radon escape and infiltration of rain water into the tailings and thus groundwater.

But Hedden wants to move the tailings to a Klondike Flats desert area, 18 miles north of the current site and where Grand County has relocated its landfill.

"The NRC is playing a silly game when (they) say it would be environmentally preferable to leave the tailings near the Colorado River," Hedden said.

Still, his suggestion is a long shot. Moving the pile is estimated to cost more than $100 million; capping is estimated at $19 million.

"They're just doing the cheapest route," Grand County Councilman Harvey Merrell said of the NRC.

Hedden estimates that properly capping the tailings would cost triple the estimate. "They don't have the resources to do the job right."

Atlas, which has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, is proposing establishing a $10 million trust for area reclamation. The NRC and perhaps other entities, including the state of Utah, could have partial governance of the trust, said Richard Blubaugh, vice president of governmental affairs for Denver-based Atlas. The remaining money needed for the project would come from the federal government.

"While people may say we don't have enough funds, we believe the assets we have . . . will accomplish the surface reclamation," Blubaugh said.

Costs for groundwater protection have not been determined and are not part of the reorganization proposal.

The project would not move forward until bankruptcy court proceedings are completed, Blubaugh said.

Backing the NRC report is a July U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service analysis that said capping the pile would be a sufficient remedy if steps were taken to prevent contaminated groundwater from reaching the river.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has been criticized for bowing to pressure from NRC and Atlas to accept the capping proposal, as its original recommendation to move the pile was rejected by the NRC.

The Grand County Council, environmental groups, Gov. Mike Leavitt and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt want to give site control to the Department of Energy, which then could move tailings to a safer place.

U.S. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, is working on a bill to shift authority over the pile from the NRC to the U.S. Department of Energy and appropriate funds for the move. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., has introduced a similar measure.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.