Las Vegas Sun

November 13, 2019

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Water study warns of Utah uranium leak

Uranium is leaking from a Utah site into the Colorado River at 530 times the federal radiation limit, threatening the drinking water of more than 25 million people, according to an independent study released today.

The findings by the nonprofit watchdog group Project On Government Oversight have prompted Nevada and California representatives to call for the 10.5 million tons of radioactive material to be removed rather than covering it with a cap to protect it from rain and leaving it next to the Colorado River near Moab, Utah.

The radiation and toxins are entering the river at 6.7 gallons per minute from an old mining site operated for the federal government. The radiation already exceeds Utah standards and the state has called for an extensive study of ground water.

Based on research done by the Department of Energy's national laboratories, scientists estimate that the uranium perched on the edge of the Colorado River will continue leaking radiation into the river, serving people in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Tucson for the next 270 years.

Contamination from the Moab uranium would continue to increase in the river for the next nine years, DOE scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee said. And if there is a flood, the radioactive pile could be washed into the water, significantly raising the level of contamination.

"Polluter greed is prevailing over the health of millions of Americans exposed to radiation leeching from a toxic waste site into the Colorado River," the Project on Government Oversight, an independent government watchdog group, said in a news release.

Researchers for the group discovered that the DOE has moved uranium and other toxic materials away from rivers and sources of ground water a dozen times in the West over the past 10 years in cases where the radioactive levels were 10 times smaller than that from the Moab pile.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering a plan to allow Atlas Corp., a defunct milling operator, to cap the pile of uranium on site at a cost of $14 million. The DOE estimates it could cost $101 million to move the toxic pile.

In addition, the Project on Government Oversight report said the uranium and toxic metals pose a threat to endangered fish including the razorback sucker, humpback chub, bonytail chub and Colorado squawfish.

Besides the radioactivity, the mound contains ammonia, arsenic, lead, mercury and nickel. The toxic pile is stored less than 750 feet from the river and the ground is not lined to prevent leaks.

The proposed legislation would shift the emphasis from keeping the uranium where it is to cleaning up the pile.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., is cosponsoring HR 393, with Reps. George Miller and Bob Filner, both D-Calif., to shift agency responsibilities for removing the uranium to the DOE.

"An ounce of contamination prevention is worth a pound of toxic waste in our water supply," Berkley said Monday. "Nevadans are tired of paying the price for America's nuclear legacy, and we're tired of waiting for a crisis before somebody does something."

In addition to cleanup, the bill would require the U.S. attorney general to assess Atlas' liability and hold it financially responsible for the move. The company is threatening to declare bankruptcy.

Although the polluted plume has been tracked less than 2 miles into the Colorado River, it could affect water quality downstream. Nevada and California water officials have detected a slight increase in radioactivity over the past six years, including elevated levels in 1993, 1994 and 1997 in Lake Mead. The source of the radioactivity in the lake is unknown.