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Measure to clean up mill advancing

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Federal legislation that would move the Atlas uranium mill tailings near Moab to a permanent disposal site is moving forward in Congress.

The U.S. Senate last week passed the Defense Authorization bill that includes attached legislation authorizing the Department of Energy to move the 10.5 million tons of radioactive dirt out of the floodplain of the Colorado River near Moab to a site north of town and out of the floodplain.

This is a significant step because the site of the abandoned Atlas uranium mill is now under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which lacks the funding and expertise to clean up abandoned uranium mill sites. Typically, such cleanups are done by DOE through the Superfund program.

The former owner, Atlas Corp., is bankrupt and didn't set aside enough money to do the work, so NRC appointed the accounting firm of PriceWaterhouseCoopers as the trustees to come up with a cleanup plan. The NRC-approved plan calls for removing the water from the tailings pile but leaving the dirt there and simply covering it with a protective cap of rock and soil.

Environmentalists have long argued that's not acceptable. Water officials in California, Nevada and Arizona also didn't like it because the downstream users worried that the tailings would seep into the Colorado and contaminate their drinking water. The Grand County Council also wanted to see the tailings shipped to a proposal site identified about 18 miles north of the Colorado River on Klondike Flats, near the Moab airport.

Officials estimate it would cost up to $300 million to move the tailings, but capping the tailings would be a fraction of that amount. Atlas has remaining assets of about $10 million to $12 million.

"There is no good plan to clean up the groundwater that fits within that budget," said Bill Hedden, Utah conservation director for the Grand Canyon Trust.

Several groups, including Grand Canyon Trust, are suing NRC over the decision allowing the tailings to remain in place, possibly contaminating the Colorado River, home of two endangered fish.

Although the legislation still faces approval from the U.S. House, officials are optimistic the Atlas cleanup will be included.

"It means it's not going through with a stand-alone bill," said Dave Berick, the U.S. Department of Energy's deputy assistant secretary. Having it as part of the bill means it has a better chance of passage.

That makes Hedden happy.

"This is great news," said Hedden. "We're very appreciative to Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) for his leadership on this."

In a separate appropriations bill, DOE has asked for $10 million in fiscal year 2001 to begin the cleanup of the Atlas site. That isn't enough to cover the total cleanup cost, but officials hope to get some help.

Part of the legislation included in the bill is a proposed land swap that would help pay for the cleanup and benefit the Northern Ute tribe.

The plan includes a transfer of a significant portion of the 88,890-acre Naval Oil Shale Reserve east of the Green River to the Northern Ute tribe, with the stipulation that a certain percentage of any revenue generated by oil and gas development on this land be returned to DOE for cleanup of the Atlas site.

Tribal leaders have agreed to a number of concessions, including managing a portion of the Green River as though it were a designated wild and scenic river.

The Atlas cleanup has long been a priority of officials in Moab and Grand County, who see it as an eyesore and safety hazard in their recreation-dominated community. Congressmen from down-river states such as Nevada, Arizona and California then joined the efforts, resulting in an announcement by Energy Secretary Bill Richardson last January that DOE would take over the site and move the tailings.

If Congress will just agree.

E-mail: donna@desnews.com