MOAB — The millions of tourists flocking here annually from around the world likely don't notice a large, terraced heap of dirt just off the highway as they enter town.
But that may change. Environmentalists want the world to know that the mound of radioactive dirt is poisoning the Colorado River, which winds through the surrounding playground of red rock canyons. They and local officials, believing science and government regulation have failed them, have joined in a public campaign to move the heap that many fear — but no one can prove — harms the waterway that quenches a large part of the West.
Within the past month, the story of the infamous Atlas uranium tailings has been pitched to the national press. An Arizona senator is starting to ask questions. And California's congressional delegation has been put on alert.
Grand County leaders met with attorneys from Chicago and an aide to Republican Congressman Chris Cannon of Utah to plot their next moves.
"Our lawyers are saying now if the county wants to accomplish anything, it's probably not going to happen in a legal arena, but we need to take it to a political arena," said Bart Leavitt, chairman of the Grand County Council.
The tactic worked in 1994, when pressure from Utah's congressional delegation prompted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to examine its decision to leave the 10.5 million tons of uranium mill tailings in place. The pile rests on an earthquake fault some 750 feet from the Colorado and across the two-lane highway from Arches National Park.
The plan this time is to enlist additional support for the move from millions of recreationists, farmers and city dwellers who rely on the Colorado River in Arizona, Nevada and California.
"The next move is trying to get congressional delegations along the river to say this is a boondoggle," said Bill Heddon of Moab, who is spearheading the tailings removal effort for the Arizona-based environmental group, Grand Canyon Trust.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican, has signed up, asking the Environmental Protection Agency and NRC to ensure the radioactive waste pile doesn't endanger the river.
But after a three-year study, the NRC seems content to leave the tailings where they are. The agency is expected to give final approval this year to a plan that would let the mill's owner, Atlas Corp. of Denver, cover the waste with layers of sand and dense clay to keep radon gas from escaping and to prevent rain and snow from seeping in.
The mound, which sits in the Colorado's flood plain, would also be wrapped in a layer of boulders to protect it from erosion by the river.
Leavitt, who personally believes the waste pile is more an eyesore than a hazard, wants it buried in a barren desert 14 miles north of the spectacular arches, fins and slickrock mounds that have made the area so popular.
The county's push to move the tailings has the backing of environmentalists, state regulators, the National Park Service and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. Even the NRC said moving the tailings is an acceptable alternative - if someone will pay for it.
"Congress has directed us to consider the economics," said Joe Holonich, chief of the NRC's Uranium Recovery Projects Branch. "When we look at $15 million (to cap it) and $120 million (to move it), then we have to say on-site stabilization is what we go forward with."
No one faults Atlas for convincing the NRC that the cheaper option is best.
Since permanently shutting down the mill in 1988, the company has spent millions of dollars studying how to deal with the waste and attempting to control the leaching of uranium, molybdenum, nickel, selenium and ammonia into the groundwater, which slowly migrates to the river.
"Atlas doesn't have the money to do it either way," said Hedden, a former Grand County councilman and Atlas mill worker. "Let's get Atlas off the hook and out of here."
Leavitt said the objective of the campaign is to secure additional state and federal money to move the pile.
Atlas bought the mill in 1962 from Charlie Steen, an itinerant geologist whose 1952 strike of uranium sparked a mining boom that brought thousands of prospectors and laborers to the region hoping to find their fortune in uranium mining.
One of those looking for work was Dale Edwards. The 18-year-old high school graduate was hired to build the mill and worked his way up to chief chemist in the lab. The Cold War-era mill produced millions of pounds of "yellow-cake" - refined uranium ore used in production of nuclear weapons and energy.
Today, Edwards, 67, is the sole employee at the mill. He runs regular tests to measure contamination of the water, dirt and air at the site, where only one building remains of the once-bustling plant that employed thousands.
Edwards and his employer dismiss the calls to move the tailings as unnecessary scare tactics.
"Personally, I still have a problem having taxpayers picking up the freight on a project that benefits very few people," said Richard Blubaugh, vice president of environmental and government affairs for Atlas.
He contends natural outcroppings of uranium in cliffs along the river put as much or more uranium into the river as the tailings pile.