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The Mountain-Prairie Region


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
134 Union Boulevard
Lakewood, Colorado 80228

April 16, 1998

Reed Harris - (801) 524-5001, x0
Janet Mizzi - (801) 524-5001, x0
Joe Webster - (303) 236-8155, x0
Sharon Rose - (303) 236-7917, x415


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined in a revised draft biological opinion provided to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the proposed action to cap a uranium tailings pile owned by the Atlas Corporation in Moab, Utah, will jeopardize two endangered fish, the Colorado squawfish and razorback sucker. The Service believes that capping the pile as proposed by Atlas will not eliminate leaching of contaminants harmful to the fish from the pile into the Colorado River. Without an associated plan to clean up the groundwater, endangered fish will continue to be "taken" by high levels of ammonia and other leachates seeping into the river.

"It's important for the public to understand the Service's opinion that capping of the tailings pile as proposed by Atlas will not prevent further groundwater contamination nor, within a reasonable time, cleanup the ground water that has already been contaminated," said Reed Harris, field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service's Salt Lake City office. "In addition, the capping as proposed will result in the permanent loss of five acres of critical habitat located on the 100-year floodplain of the Colorado River," Reed added.

As required under the Endangered Species Act, the biological opinion includes a "reasonable and prudent alternative" (RPA) to the proposed capping that the Service believes would avoid the likelihood of jeopardy to the endangered fishes. The RPA includes the following:

1. The NRC should require Atlas to immediately initiate steps to comply with NRC and Utah Department of Environmental Quality regulations requiring a Groundwater Corrective Action Plan to reduce the leaching of contaminants into the Colorado River from the tailings pile. This plan should be implemented within 2 years.

2. Bioassay studies should be completed over the next 18 months to assess the cumulative effects of the contaminant plume on the endangered fish. This would provide specific information about the reduction of contaminants necessary to eliminate harm to the endangered species. These studies would be of value in designing the groundwater corrective action plan.

3. Water contained within the pile should be reduced (drained) to a level that would preclude further drainage from the pile into the underground water table, and the cap should be redesigned to preclude any future infiltration of rain water into the pile.

4. The cap should be redesigned to avoid loss or adverse modification of the five acres of critical habitat in the Colorado River floodplain that occurrs under the current design. If this is not possible, the NRC should develop and implement a plan to replace, restore or enhance a comparative amount of habitat for the Colorado squawfish and razorback sucker.

5. An Oak Ridge National Laboratory study identified a second source of uranium contamination on the Atlas site. As part of the reclamation plan, the NRC should require Atlas to cleanup this second site and any additional sites known to contain contaminated soil/or groundwater that could potentially affect the endangered fish.

6. Under the proposed action, the NRC identified an average annual water depletion from the Colorado River of 154.3 acre-feet. Impacts of this depletion should be addressed through provisions developed by the Colorado River Recovery Implementation Program to protect instream flows needed by the fish.

In its original draft biological opinion, the Service recommended to the NRC that the Atlas Corporation be required to move the tailings pile out of the floodplain. Based on subsequent information and legal advice, the Service acknowledged that the NRC does not have the authority to require relocation of the pile. The only decision NRC can make with regard to the pile is to approve the capping as proposed, approve the capping proposal with modifications, or deny the proposal to cap. Therefore, the Service agreed to provide a revised draft biological opinion consistent with the authority and responsibilities of the agencies involved. The Service recognizes that Congressional action or legislation would be required to move the pile to another location.

NRC and Atlas will review the draft opinion and provide comments to the Fish and Wildlife Service prior to issuance of a final biological opinion in about 45 days.

The Service's responsibility is to protect listed fishes in the Colorado River near Moab, to protect designated critical habitat in the river and the 100-year floodplain, and to undertake appropriate actions to promote recovery of listed species. 

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