SALT LAKE CITY -- The Energy Department proposed yesterday to move a huge pile of radioactive waste away from the banks of the Colorado River -- a victory for environmentalists and Western politicians who fear the debris could poison the Southwest's major source of drinking water.
The pile -- a mostly open-air heap surrounded only by a chain-link fence -- covers 130 acres near the town of Moab and consists of about 12 million tons of dirt and other waste from decades of uranium processing. It contains toxic chemicals and traces of uranium and other radioactive substances.
The Energy Department said it will recommend in an environmental impact statement that the waste be moved to a closed storage facility about 30 miles to the north, near Crescent Junction. The department said it plans no final decision until it reviews all public comment.
The site is the only decommissioned uranium mill overseen by the Energy Department that has yet to be cleaned up.
''We're thrilled with the DOE's decision," said Dianne Nielson, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality.
The immediate reason for concern is that the waste is seeping into the soil, getting into the groundwater, and working its way into the Colorado River. But the worst fear is that a major flood on the Colorado could wash the stuff into the river and poison the water. The Colorado supplies drinking water to about 25 million people in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and other cities across the Southwest.
At the new location, the waste would be buried in a hole lined with a protective layer to keep the material from seeping into the groundwater. It would also be covered. Depending on how the waste is moved -- rail, truck, or pipeline -- the cleanup would cost an estimated $407 million to $472 million.
The waste began piling up in the 1950s after the dawn of the atomic age, as the ensuing demand for uranium turned sleepy little communities in Utah into mining boom towns. The department took control of the site in 2001 after the most recent owner of the mill, Denver-based Atlas Corp., declared bankruptcy in 1998 when it realized it could not afford to deal with the mess.