The Environmental Protection Agency's proposal to cap the toxic Sharon Steel tailings on the site of the defunct steel mill in Midvale has drawn heavy flak from political leaders and health officials.

Last week, a year after the EPA said it was reconsidering its plan to cap the tailings on the site, it released its preferred alternative, arrived at after additional study. The preferred plan was to cap the tailings on site, along with the arsenic and lead contamination.The clay cap would be 3 feet deep and covered with soil and vegetation. The public would be kept off the 260-acre site, and groundwater would be pumped out and cleansed to prevent its carrying contamination into the deeper aquifer used for drinking water.

Kenneth L. Alkema, director of the Utah Division of Environmental Health, said the EPA proposal is premature in that the agency has not finished its study of alternatives. One of these options is reprocessing the tailings, he said.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Norm Bangerter wrote to the EPA emphasizing his hope that a solution would be found that would allow appropriate use of groundwater, protect health and allow the land at the site to be used, according to Alkema.

Now that the EPA has issued its plan, which apparently does not meet the governor's criteria, "the next step is to push hard to make sure before any final decision is made that they look hard at reprocessing," he said.

Alkema called the proposal premature and inadequate to protect groundwater or provide a permanent solution.

The Salt Lake County Commission sent a letter to James J. Scherer, the EPA's regional administrator, urging the agency to study the possibility that the tailings could be reprocessed. If the pile stays where it is, future pumping of the underground water could cause it to contaminate water supplies, commissioners said.

Midvale Mayor Everett Dahl attacked the EPA plan as "still unacceptable" and blasted the EPA for a "very incomplete job." The city wants the toxic dust removed from the site, he said.

He listed these unacceptable aspects of the capping proposal:

- It leaves a "unique, hazardous waste pile of large dimensions in the heart of a metropolitan area of about 700,000 population."

- The tailings could allow arsenic to seep into the drinking water. EPA officials say that's not a problem because the underground water flows from the tailings toward the Jordan River and away from culinary wells. But Dahl still worries that the wells could be contaminated someday, especially since 450,000 people drink water from them.

- The tailings interfere with developing the Jordan River Parkway along the river.

- In case of an earthquake, the tailings could slide into the river, blocking it and creating a new contaminated lake.

- Private enterprise should be allowed to extract valuable minerals from the tailings.

- "And worst of all," not removing the tailings means the city can't use the land.

Dahl would like to see the pile transported by slurry pipeline to Cedar Valley, 20 miles south in Utah County, where minerals could be extracted. This could be done in conjunction with cleaning up the Midvale slag piles, which must also be cleaned up, he said.