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Front Page » February 27, 2003 » Opinion » Select right storage site for Moab tailings
Published 4,068 days ago

Select right storage site for Moab tailings


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By RICHARD SHAW
Staff writer

There are certain words in the English language which make people cringe - words like sewage, toxic, poison, venomous, putrid, scum, slime and radioactive. Certainly, there are many more. But the last one seems to make most Americans skin crawl.

Since 1945 when the first images of Nagasaki and Hiroshima came to the nation in the form of black and white photos showing walking corpses drifting down burnt out streets with skin drooping from their bones or the sight of human shadows etched on light colored walls, Americans have feared radiation.

The beginning of the uranium boom in the late 1940s was a money maker for many parts of eastern and southeastern Utah, yet many residents felt uneasy about the ore being extracted from the ground.

Some of what was extracted was taken for atomic power plants, but much of it was used to create the bombs people feared would one day eliminate the human race from the planet.

During the years, the stories and facts about radiation have become all mixed up, with the ultimate science fiction novel blended into many of the scenarios people faced daily.

For years, the United States government assured the public that uranium mining was safe. Federal officials told people living downwind from atomic testing in Utah to stay indoors for a few hours after the blasts and things would be fine.

Some of the advice and incomplete scientific data were later determined to be misconceptions of the situation.

But much of the information was the result of the fact that no one knew what exactly what direct exposure to radioactive materials would do to people or their offspring.

In the 1950s, an atomic attack by the Soviet Union seemed imminent. Worried Americans were assured that, if they ducked and covered for a few minutes after a blast, they very well could walk away with few injuries unless they were at the epicenter of an explosion.

Afterall, military personnel had not suffered negative effects from participating in the nuclear tests in Nevada.

But years later, the nation would learn the costs of the testing, both to military and non-service personnel who had been exposed.

The country would also find that people who labored in the uranium mines of southeastern Utah and those who worked in processing plants were becoming sick from a variety of illnesses, particularly certain types of cancer.

The misconceptions as well as the unknowns that later became known have made it more difficult for the officials who regulate nuclear and radioactive waste today.

It doesn't matter whether it is refuse from a hospital, tailings from a processing site or a dismantled reactor from a nuclear power station, the word radioactive is apparently all the general public needs to hear before many people immediately know they are against it.

The United States Department of Energy has been looking at doing something about the tailings from the old Atlas Minerals Corporation plant on the banks of the Colorado River in Grand County for a long time.

The mill ran for 28 years from 1956 to 1984, extracting radioactive materials from the ore, and the company piled almost 12 million tons of left over tailings on the property.

In the heady days of American industry in the late 1940s when the U.S. was the biggest producer of almost everything, environmental concerns were almost an unknown concept.

Afterall, there was money to be made and the Russians had the bomb so the U.S. had to act decisively and quickly to counter the communist threat.

In the 1960s the business practices began to be questioned and, by the early 1970s, the environmental movement had traveled beyond the hippies on college campuses.

Restoral and reclamation became important across the nation and Atlas Minerals filed a reclamation plan in the 1980s.

However, reclamation costs a significant amount of money.

The mess made years ago when companies had no idea the accepted practices of the time could cause problems suddenly became the businesses' responsibility to clean up.

Companies faced paying monumental cleanup costs to remedy the situations and many businesses filed for protection in the bankruptcy courts.

Now, it has been left to the government and taxpayers to handle the problems.

The question is what to do?

In the east, there is a move to ship all the hot, no so hot and even not hot at all stuff to the west.

Some people claim the west is where the ores were mined and the west should take the materials back.

They have apparently forgotten how long they heated and lit their businesses and homes with that rock from the earth.

Besides, the residents in the west have our own problems, demostrated by the controversy that is going on with the Moab tailings at the present time.

Should the tailings be kept in place by one or should the materials be moved?

If moved, where should the uranium millings go?

It appears that few Carbon residents want the waste of a past mining operation in Grand County moved into the local area.

We have enough of our own mining industry waste to deal with in Carbon County.

Reclamation is taking place, but I can't help but wonder whether the years of environmental damage from poor coal mining practices before the 1960s will ever be fully repaired.

After looking at the 219-page study about the mill tailing the U.S. Department of Energy has made, it appears to me, based on safety, cost and simplicity, moving the tailings to Kondike Flats west of the Grand County Airport seems the best moderate alternative.

Selecting the Grand County storage alternative would resolve the problem of high ammonia, uranium and magnesium levels in the Colorado River. The Grand County option would also relocate the materials at a site well away from the Colorado River, popular tourist attractions and the town of Moab.


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