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Nevada water authority raises concerns about new uranium mining on Colorado River Print

by Craig Bigler
Moab Times-Independent
June 27, 2008

The old Atlas Uranium mill tailings site is located only 75 feet from the banks of the Colorado River. Downstream water users have, for many years, raised concerns that the toxic chemicals in the pile will contaminate the Colorado River. A Las Vegas water manager has asked the Interior Department to “carefully evaluate the implications for water quality in the Colorado River” before authorizing new uranium mining operations. Photo by Craig Bigler

In a letter to Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, the general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority has asked that the authority be allowed to participate as a stakeholder in the environmental review process for new uranium mines in the Colorado River watershed.

Patricia Mulroy wrote that there are questions about the adequacy of the Mining Law of 1872, but she admitted those questions are beyond her agency’s purview. Instead, she wrote, “I respectfully request that Interior carefully evaluate the implications for water quality in the Colorado River before authorizing mining operations within its watershed.”

The letter raised the specter of drinking water supplies from the Colorado River becoming more contaminated with radio-nuclides, including uranium, by development of increasing numbers of mining claims. It states that potential new sources of such contaminants, on top of “measurable quantities” of contaminants currently going into the river from tailings piles, including the 16 million ton Atlas site near Moab, make a difficult situation worse.

“Treatment for uranium on a municipal scale is both technologically challenging and expensive. Therefore it is important... that additional contributions of uranium from new sources be minimized so that our ability to meet Safe Drinking Water Act standards is not jeopardized,” Mulroy wrote.

Don Metzler, the Energy Department’s federal project director for the Moab tailings cleanup project, said he does not disagree with the need for the Interior Department to consider the cumulative impacts of new mining projects. But he said that the Moab site is not adding to the uranium contaminants that mother nature releases naturally into the river as it flows through the Colorado Plateau.

Metzler said that the river near the Moab site has been monitored for years by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and U.S. Geological Service, and since 2001 by the U.S. Department of Energy. Naturally occurring uranium finds its way into the river from the geologic rocks within the Colorado Plateau, he said.

”In past years contaminants of concern from the old Atlas mill tailings pile have been measured on the river bank adjacent to the mill site that are above background and occasionally above the uranium drinking water standard,” Metzler said. “However, within a few hundred feet down river of the mill site uranium and all constituents of concern have been measured at or below background ranges. DOE has in place an interim action extraction well field that captures groundwater before it reaches the river and reduces much of the uranium that discharges into the river as a result of the unremediated tailings pile.”

So far more than 100 million gallons of groundwater and 2,100 pounds of uranium have been removed by these wells, Metzler said. ” DOE continues aggressive monitoring and reporting of the results and can demonstrate that the river adjacent to the mill site is protective of human health and the environment,” he said.

The 2008 Water Quality Report was recently issued by the Las Vegas Valley Water District, a member agency of the authority. The report explains the requirements of the Safe Water Drinking Act, and assures the two million residents it serves, and the 40 million people who visit Las Vegas, that all safe water standards are being met.




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