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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Pile

Air Date: Week of

An 80 foot tile of uranium tailings sits in Moab, Utah, a remnant of the town's mining history during the Cold War. "The Pile," as locals call it, sits along the banks of the Colorado River and leaches thousands of chemicals into the river daily. Five years ago, the Department of Energy was charged with re-locating the pile but only recently did the agency submit an environmental impact statement with five options suggesting what to do with it. As Sheri Quinn reports, many locals, environmentalists, and public officials of Utah and states downstream are pressuring the DOE to consider only one option.


CURWOOD: In the early 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower made his famous "Atoms for Peace" speech at the United Nations and a number of towns across the country rose to the occasion to mine the uranium for the atomic age. Moab, Utah was one of those towns and it built a booming economy around digging out uranium ore. But, when the demand for uranium dropped in the 1980's, operations in Moab ground to a halt. The town turned to tourism to promote its wilderness and national parks. But, a reminder of Moab's mining legacy—a gigantic mountain of sludgy radioactive waste—remains on the landscape, as does the question of the uncertain future of the radioactive pile. Sheri Quinn has our story.


QUINN: The small town of Moab in southern Utah is settled in a fortress of mountains and spiraling canyons. The Colorado River twists and turns and meanders through the area. Judy Carmichael is a longtime Moab resident. Standing on a road overlooking the valley, she calls this "Moab magic."

CARMICHAEL: The La Sal mountains are off in the distance to the south and they are spectacular and then we have a nice drop of red rocks and our valley's surrounded by red rocks. You can't ask for a better view than we have from right here.

Tailings Pile in Moab, Utah.
(Photo: Tom Till ©.)

QUINN: But, amidst this view sits another mountain. This one has a flat top, is covered by a layer of rust-colored dirt and stands 80 feet tall, spreading over 130 acres. The "pile" as it's called by locals is 12 million tons of radioactive tailings perched on the banks of the Colorado River and it causes residents like Carmichael worry.


CARMICHAEL: It looks like it could give us a disaster. A responsible response to something that you know is potentially dangerous to the people that you love, you want it out of their way.

QUINN: Everyday, thousands of gallons of waste comprised of heavy metals, chemicals and radioactive elements used during the uranium extraction process leach from the pile into the groundwater and migrate to the river. Ammonia has reached toxic levels and has killed some endangered fish in the nearby backwater. Water quality officials say drinking water isn't at risk. The pollution gets diluted by the time it reaches users in four states downstream. Moab's locals get their water from another source. Bill Hedden is director of the environmental group, Grand Canyon Trust, which has been at the forefront of trying to get the pile moved. He says the big concern is the likelihood of a flood pushing the entire pile into the river, putting the West's delicate water supply at risk.

HEDDEN: After 1,000 years, one percent of the radioactivity will be gone and all of the other hazards will still be there. So, basically, we're just postponing a problem for our children or grandchildren if we leave it sitting there.

QUINN: The nuclear regulatory commission had approved plans for the owners of the mine, Atlas Minerals Corporation, to pay for capping the pile in its present location. But, the company went bankrupt in 1998 and in 2000; Congress put the Department of Energy in charge of the site and voted to have them move the pile elsewhere. Last year, the DOE put out a draft environmental impact statement with five alternatives for the pile. The three most expensive options involve moving it outside of town at estimated costs of 300 to 500 million dollars. Another alternative mentioned is to do nothing, but that's not considered legally feasible. That leaves the least expensive option of capping the pile estimated at a cost of $200 million. Utah Congressman Jim Matheson believes the DOE wants to take the easy way out.

MATHESON: I think that costs may be trumping what's the right thing to do.

QUINN: Matheson recently held a congressional hearing to call attention to the issue. He worked with Moab residents and environmentalists to organize governors and elected officials of states downstream of the pile to put pressure on the DOE to move it.

MATHESON: For all the down river, there are 25 million or more people living down river from this site, the potential for flooding, which was set as a near certainty, obviously has implications for everyone downstream.

QUINN: Many scientists have found problems with the on-site capping plan. Hydro-geologist and former DOE scientist Kip Solomon questions some of DOE's conclusions. While taking soil samples right across the river from the pile, he found toxic waste had migrated to the other side.

SOLOMON: The Department of Energy has assumed that the hydrologic boundary of the site is the river. And, they have over and over again chosen to not collect any data with one minor exception, even in light of our findings. It's not my responsibility to tend the Department of Energy but I remain astounded that they do not initiate additional studies on the south side of the river.

QUINN: To keep the pile in place, Solomon says the DOE would have to implement more stabilizing measures not included in their plan. He says it would end up costing tax payers more in the long run.

SOLOMON: I don't think that if the true costs were known. I don't think it makes economic sense either. On all fronts it's a bad option and it actually should not be on the table.

QUINN: The Environmental Protection Agency also believes capping this pile isn't a viable plan. EPA spokesperson Max Dodson says the agency gave the on-site option its worst possible rating.

DODSON: That is the exception more than the rule. I mean, we have probably every year between 200 and 300 documents to review. I would suspect that probably less than three percent of our total reviews end up with an environmentally unsatisfactory rating.

QUINN: But, not everyone agrees the pile should be moved. Noel de Nevers is a chemical engineer at the University of Utah. He believes there may be other motives at work, that the risks to the water supply are minimal and it's not worth spending the money to move it.

DE NEVERS: As land use planning, that's not the best use of that land, but if that's the reason for doing it, let's say that out loud. Let's not hide behind the magic words radioactive, drinking water, Colorado River. Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!

QUINN: The DOE has received over a thousand comments about their environmental impact statement. They say they will review every opinion before they make a decision. Joe Davis is a DOE spokesperson.

DAVIS: What our folks are focusing on right now is what do we need to do both in a regulatory environment and a legal environment and scientifically to make sure that we comply with the law and address this uranium mill tailings pile.


QUINN: Environmentalists and local residents say they are fueled by the "Moab magic" and their concern for the safety of the region and they are determined to continue the fight. Judy Carmichael says she'll make sure the pile remains in the spotlight until it's moved.

CARMICHAEL: I don't think the world realizes how darn tenacious we are. We've been at it since '84. We're not going to wear out. But, I'm going to go to my grave knowing that I did everything in my power to get the pile moved north of this town.

QUINN: The DOE is expected to announce what they will do with the Moab uranium tailings pile this summer. For Living on Earth, I'm Sheri Quinn in Utah.



DOE website on Moab pile

City of Moab Tailings website

Rep. Jim Matheson on Tailings Pile


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