The U.S. Congress approved legislation last night that would provide groundwater restoration and make way for the removal of some 13 million tons of radioactive mill tailings that have poisoned the Colorado River near here for nearly 50 years. The legislation, part of the Defense Authorization Act, will transfer jurisdiction for the Atlas uranium tailings site from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to the Department of Energy, with instructions to DOE to remove the tailings from the floodplain of the river and to restore the groundwater.
Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in 1998 representing the Grand Canyon Trust, the Sierra Club, and local outfitters to ensure the waste is moved and the site properly cleaned up. “We are pleased that Congress has stepped in to finally end this environmental fiasco,” said Susan Daggett, attorney for Earthjustice. “Americans expect a clean-up worthy of the river that is the primary water supply for the entire Southwest.”
Bill Hedden, the Grand Canyon Trust’s Utah Conservation Director said, “This is landmark legislation for all those who care about the Colorado River. It will help protect drinking water for 25 million downstream users, while also restoring this reach of the river.” Hedden added that Congress still must appropriate the necessary funds for full cleanup of the Atlas site.
This new legislation also endorses an agreement between DOE and Utah’s Northern Ute tribe to return 84,000 acres taken from the tribe to create a Naval Oil Shale Reserve in 1916. This is the largest voluntary return of lands to a Native American tribe in over 100 years. If the Utes develop oil and gas resources on these lands, they will pay a royalty to help offset the costs of cleanup at the Atlas site. The tribe also agrees to manage and protect an 80-mile stretch of the Green River in a manner consistent with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
At 130 acres and 13 million tons, the Atlas tailings pile is the fifth largest in the United States. It covers an estimated 118 football fields in the floodplain of the Colorado River. The Colorado supplies drinking water to 25 million downstream users in California, Arizona and Nevada. During the last 44 years, the Atlas tailings pile has been leaking an average of 57,000 gallons per day of toxic soup into groundwater that discharges directly into the Colorado River. Current rates of groundwater discharge into the river are estimated at 120,000 gallons per day.
High concentrations of contaminants include: ammonia, nitrates, sulfates, uranium, molybdenum, vanadium, and selenium. Groundwater uranium content at the Atlas site is 568 times greater than the level allowed by federal regulations. In April of this year, the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife service issued findings in a report that showed ammonia concentrations in the Colorado River at the site to be as high as 1,600mg/l, or 850 times the acute lethal dose for fish. Not surprisingly, the federal scientists reported that the ammonia pollution is causing 100 percent fish mortality in that part of the river.