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Help us get tailings, Blanding says

Economy depends on it, city officials tell lawmakers

BLANDING — As the adage goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure.

In southeastern Utah, it is Moab's trash, specifically 13 million tons of radioactive mill tailings and contaminated soils now leaching into the Colorado River from the defunct Atlas mill.

And Blanding wants it bad. On Friday city officials lobbied Utah lawmakers to make their economic dream come true.

"Jobs are minimal and there is no other major industry," said Blanding City Councilman Kelly Laws. "Mining and logging have gone by the wayside, farming is tough due to the drought. We're struggling down here."

Today, the White Mesa uranium mill about 6 miles south of town, owned by International Uranium, sits idle, awaiting enough raw materials and a better economy to fire up the machinery.

When things are good, the mill employs roughly 70 people and is the backbone of the San Juan County economy. When things are shut down, the local economy — already one of the poorest in America — shuts down with it.

That pain is felt by local businessmen and community leaders, who turned out Friday for a public hearing of the Hazardous Waste Regulation and Tax Policy Task Force. They were in town to gauge public sentiment on recent tax increases imposed on companies that accept waste, including IUC, which recycles radioactive waste.

IUC officials told lawmakers they can live with the current tax of about 10 cents per cubic foot, but "that's all we can bear. We're at the razor's edge," said company president Ron Hochstein.

The raw material to get the plant back on its feet, local supporters say, would be 13 million tons of Moab tailings, which could be "recycled."

IUC has already recovered 1.1 million pounds of uranium from similar waste byproducts since 1997 when IUC purchased the mill.

"That's not an insignificant amount," Hochstein said.

Not that there's enough uranium left in the Moab tailings to make it worthwhile. But the federal government is gearing up to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to remove the tailings from Moab, where they are contaminating Colorado River water for tens of millions of downstream users.

IUC says it wants to recycle the waste in exchange for disposal fees, shipping the tailings via a new slurry pipeline along U.S. 191 to Blanding.

Other options include shipping the waste to a state-owned site near the Moab airport, where they would be buried, or to Bureau of Land Management properties near Crescent Junction. Another option is to cap the tailings on site — something state and local authorities are adamantly opposed to.

The Blanding proposal would be perfect, supporters say, because it would get rid of Moab's problem while providing economic benefit to their neighbors in southeastern Utah. And when the project was completed, the pipeline could be used to ship water to drought-parched San Juan County.

But the proposal has its skeptics. The slurry pipeline would be constructed through some of the most scenic vistas in America, and once at the mill site, would threaten more than 200 archaeological sites at and around the mill.

"Those are problems that have to be addressed," said Sarah Fields, with the Sierra Club in Moab.

Friday's hearing drew about a half-dozen local residents, a handful of environmental activists, and another half-dozen state regulators and IUC competitors.

Anna M. Frazier with Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment came from Arizona to represent Navajo residents but found the hearing process intimidating.

"I'm not sure I can speak because I'm not from Utah," she confided.

Utah lawmakers have taken the unprecedented step of requiring every witness, under penalty of perjury charges, to be sworn in before speaking to the committee. Lawmakers say they want just the facts, not emotion, in demanding that witnesses tell the truth.

The task force is visiting waste sites through Utah as part of a two-year study of state policy to determine whether or not waste companies are paying their fair share on taxes and fees.

"It gives us a feel for the facilities, and that's invaluable," said Rep. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George and the House chairman.

The task force will make recommendations to the 2005 Legislature.

"What we are doing is our homework," added Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo and Senate chairman of the committee.


E-mail: donna@desnews.com