Gallup Independent

Matheson pushes for Atlas cleanup

By Kathy Helms
Gallup Independent

Saturday, May 26, 2007

WINDOW ROCK -- Language added last week to the annual defense bill by U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, 2nd District/Utah, would require the Department of Energy to complete removal and cleanup of 16 million tons of radioactive waste from the Atlas uranium mill tailings site near the Colorado River by the year 2019.

Matheson said the timetable recently outlined by U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman projecting completion after 21 years is arbitrary and unacceptable.

"DOE has a miserable record here, to be honest, and I've fired many shots across the bow before, but this was the time for the direct hit," he said. "This business to say 2028 is just unacceptable."

Matheson noted that DOE's own Record of Decision issued in 2005 has a seven to 10 year timeframe for cleanup. Yet the agency continues to delay and most recently said it wouldn't finish removal of the tailings pile and cleanup before 2028.

"There's overwhelming scientific evidence that this site is unstable and that the contamination, already migrating under the river toward the town of Moab, could, with one major flood event, be dumped into the Colorado. That disaster would put the health and safety of 25 million downstream users at risk," he said.

The 94-foot-high pile of uranium mill tailings from the Atlas site near Moab lies in a flood plain next to the Colorado River, where it is leaching chemicals into the river and groundwater of local communities, posing health and safety concerns for downstream users in Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California, he said.

Matheson has been leading the fight in Congress to push DOE to remove the tailings pile and clean up the site. In 2005, DOE signed a Record of Decision clearing the way for removal of the tailings.

Under the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project Site Record of Decision, the tailings are to be moved by rail to the proposed Crescent Junction site, more than 30 miles from the Colorado River. However, DOE continues to delay the timeline and now proposes to complete the project 16 years later than it originally proposed.

Cleanup of the tailings stalled when Atlas Corp. declared bankruptcy in 1998, leaving behind an interim cap over the tailings pile and inadequate cleanup funds. In 2000, Congress mandated that DOE find a way to clean up the site and move the tailings.

The mandate called for ground water restoration, removal of the tailings to a site in Utah for permanent disposal and any necessary stabilization of residual radioactive material and other contaminated material from the Moab site and Colorado River floodplain.

Studies conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Research Council, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Utah, and independent scientists all have pointed to the dangers of leaving the tailings pile in place.

The studies show that contaminants already have traveled beneath the river, and indicate that it may take only episodic high flows and the natural wandering of the Colorado to undercut the tailings pile and flood the river corridor for miles with radioactive waste.