Containing 10.5 million tons of toxic tailings, the Atlas dump is the largest impoundment of radioactive mill wastes ever accumulated near a U.S. river. Oak Ridge National Laboratory documented a plume of intensely contaminated groundwater a mile wide and forty feet deep discharging from the tailings directly into the Colorado River, a drinking water source for 20 million Americans. Immediately downstream are Canyonlands National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the Grand Canyon, and Lake Mead, where major urban water withdrawals begin. Ultimately, nearly every drop in the river is diverted for human use.
The Atlas pile should have been moved from the Colorado River floodplain years ago. The Department of Energy has invested over a billion dollars relocating nine other tailings piles that threatened rivers in the southwest, piles far smaller and less polluting than Atlas. In fact, this pile is the only nuclear waste dump remaining beside a river, even though there is a nearby site that it perfectly suited to permanent disposal. However, because the Atlas mill was still in operation when Congress addressed the tailings issue in 1978, federal law directed Atlas to reclaim the site itself, with oversight by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Neither the company nor NRC has the money needed to address the massive water pollution leaking from the unlined pile (Atlas has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and NRC has no appropriation for actual reclamation activities). Lacking alternatives, NRC is expected to approve Atlas' bare-bones proposal to reclaim the site by simply placing a dirt cap over the top. Such a plan will do nothing to stop contamination of the river, which is expected to continue for hundreds of years.
We have filed a lawsuit to ensure that the waste is moved and the site properly cleaned up for now and for future generations. However, executive leadership is needed to avert an environmental and financial fiasco. We ask Secretary Babbitt and Governor Leavitt to work with federal agencies and the Congress to craft a clean-up worthy of the river that is the primary water supply for the entire Southwest.