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DOE Moves to Protect Southern California Water Source

The Department of Energy will clean up 10.5 million tons of uranium mill tailings in Moab, Utah that are sitting on the bank of the source of drinking water for millions of Southern Californians.

At the Weymouth Filtration Plant in La Verne, Calif., last week, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson signed a Memorandum of Understanding that will help ensure clean drinking water for 17 million Southern Californians.

The agreement commits the Department of Energy (DOE) to cleaning up 10.5 million tons of uranium mill tailings in Moab, Utah that are sitting on the bank of the Colorado River, the source of drinking water for millions of Americans in the Southwest and Southern California.

The uranium mill tailings are the radioactive contaminated waste products from nearly three decades of uranium mining operations.

The waste sits in a 110-foot mound at the doorstep of two nation parks, Arches and Canyonlands.

The tailings contain low levels of radioactivity from uranium, radium, as well as hazardous materials, such as arsenic, lead and other chemicals and metals left by the process used to separate the uranium from the ore.

"Millions of Americans depend on the Colorado River for their water," said Richardson. "I believe that this regional problem represents a national responsibility. The agreement we signed today is the next step in making sure that this water is protected."

The agreement commits the federal government, the State of Utah and the Ute Tribe to three interrelated actions.

  • DOE will seek funding and authority to remove the tailings and clean up the site.
  • DOE's Naval Oil Shale Reserve No. 2, an undeveloped tract of land in the northeastern corner of the state, will be returned to the Ute Indian Tribe. In return, the Utes will give a portion of any royalties from future energy production on the lands to a fund to help clean up the uranium mill tailings near Moab, Utah.
  • The Ute Tribe also agrees to establish a 1/4-mile land corridor for a 75-mile stretch of the Green River to be protected as environmentally sensitive.

Moving the tailings away from Moab is estimated to cost up to $300 million.

The uranium waste resulted from mill operations at the site from 1956 to 1984.

Denver-based Atlas Corp., which owned the site from 1962 through 1984, filed for bankruptcy two years ago.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which had been working with Atlas Corp. for more than a decade to select and implement a final clean-up plan, recently appointed a trustee to manage the work.

DOE has successfully cleaned up 22 similar sites.

The memorandum, which was also signed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Utah Governor Michael Leavitt, is the next step in the Clinton-Gore Administration's efforts to removing the 150-acre site from the banks of the Colorado River.

The agreement will require congressional approval.

"The signing of this memorandum moves the process along and will speed up congressional action," said Richardson.

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