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California and the West

Uranium Waste Cleanup Gets No U.S. Funds

Pollution: Utah, California protest. Contamination of the Colorado River is feared.

April 24, 2001|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Bush administration has omitted any money from the federal budget to continue the cleanup of a huge uranium slag heap in southern Utah that has been leaking radioactive waste into the Colorado River.

Perched about 750 feet from the river's edge near the small town of Moab, the waste heap is the size of a football field and contains 13 tons of material left over from a uranium mill that shut down in 1984.

Chris Ullman, spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, said the request for money for the Moab site will be reviewed by the administration. He said that cleaning up contamination left from the cold war is "a priority to the president."

The budgetary omission has brought protests from Utah and Southern California. Officials in California are worried that the mill waste could severely contaminate the Colorado River, a major source of drinking water for Southern California and the Southwest.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 25, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Uranium waste--A Tuesday story about a stalled cleanup of radioactive waste leaking into the Colorado River understated the size of the waste heap. The slag heap near Moab, Utah, is the size of 130 football fields and holds 13 million tons of waste matter.

"We worked too long and too hard to let this happen," said Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Montebello). "It's too critical to California."

"Our entire water supply is threatened," said Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista). "They've got to act quickly."

After years of trying to get federal attention, Napolitano, Filner and other members of Congress managed to get an amendment to a military appropriations bill last year pledging assistance for the cleanup at Moab.

The measure provided no money but contained a pledge that the federal government, pending a study by the National Academy of Sciences, would pay to have the waste pile moved away from the river.

The bill was signed by President Bill Clinton just before the November election, with a promise that the government would continue the project in future years. It was part of a common two-step legislative process in which a project is authorized the first year, and funded in the second and subsequent years.

So far, water intake plants downstream from Moab have not detected any unsafe levels of toxic substances traceable to the waste pile.

Officials worry, however, that the waste heap is a "radioactive time bomb" that should be cleaned up before a flood, an earthquake or the cumulative effects of the leaching contaminate drinking water supplies downstream. Last week, seven members of Congress petitioned the chairman of the House energy and water development subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee to add $10 million to the budget for the project. Their letter noted that 25 million people in the West depend on the Colorado River for drinking water.

But the Bush administration, to date, has not budgeted money for the cleanup or for the study.

Meanwhile, Moab residents complain that the cleanup work done so far at the site has actually made things worse by increasing the amount of dirt that blows into town during the area's frequent windstorms.

"People here are up in arms about the tail dust blowing through the town," said Bill Hedden, a former Grand County commissioner from Moab and now Utah conservation director of the Grand Canyon Trust.

The slag heap was left behind by a plant run by Atlas Corp., which filed for bankruptcy protection in 1998. The plant, which began operating in 1956, provided uranium for nuclear weapons.

Moab, with 4,500 people, is a popular tourist destination 240 miles southeast of Salt Lake City in a starkly beautiful, ecologically fragile corner of the Southwest. The region is home to several national parks and monuments. In the 1950s, Moab was the capital of a uranium mining boom.

The Colorado River and an 875-acre wetland preserve close to the waste pile are home to dozens of species of fish and birds, including five that are protected by the Endangered Species Act: the Colorado pike minnow, razorback sucker, humpback chub and boneytail fish and the southwestern willow flycatcher, a bird.

California officials hope that it is only a matter of convincing the new administration of the importance of the project.

"The president's budget has been culled back to the president's priorities--Moab was not one of his campaign themes," said Adan Ortega, senior executive assistant to the general manager at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. "We hope the Congress can convince the president of its importance."

A spokesman for Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), whose district includes Moab, said the Bush budget does not include any specific Department of Energy cleanup projects, and therefore his boss is confident that Moab has not been singled out for exclusion.

The spokesman said Cannon believes that the administration, once it has time to review the budget, will include the cleanup in future budgets.

But others, including the trustee for Atlas, suggest that the Bush administration may decide that it is too expensive and not necessary to move the pile. There are scientific disputes about whether virtually all of the toxic material will have leached into the river before the pile can be moved.

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