Is The Colorado River Becoming Radioactive from Upstream Uranium Mines?

It All Depends On Who You Ask

Las Vegas Water Offical Warns Radioactive Levels Rising

Sunday’s news was a bit disconcerting, when I read a small story at Tri-State Online.  Pat Mulroy, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority was quoted as saying measurable quantities of uranium are showing up in Colorado River water, something difficult and expensive to remove before passing it on to consumers in Las Vegas.

She blames upstream uranium mining, especially in the Moab, Utah area, so I decided to take a look and see what’s happening up there.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no operating uranium mines in or near Moab, UT, or anywhere in the state of Utah.  So, I felt Ms. Mulroy was referring to the uranium mill tailings just outside Moab, where they’ve been for decades after the failure of the Atlas Minerals Corporation mill.

Well, the 16 million tons of radioactive dirt is still there, but according to Moab Mayor David Sakrison, they are no danger to the community or the river.

In a phone interview, the mayor said the federal government has done an exemplary job of mitigating dust and water runoff that would contaminate the Colorado.  Sakrison did say, however, this has been the case for the past eight years, and before that, Colorado River water was indeed being polluted.

Had the tailings pile presented a health risk to his community, especially through it’s drinking water?  “No”, said the mayor, “our aquifer is on the other side of the Colorado and our water supply is not contaminated.”

It was in 2000 that then Energy Secretary Bill Richardson promised to relocate the tailings pile, and Congress had given the Department of Energy authority to begin cleanup.  President Bush, however, included NO money in his 2000 budget for the removal project.

Cleanup About To Begin at Moab

Donald Metzler, Federal Project Director for the Moab cleanup, told me everything is in place to begin transporting the contaminated soil to a storage area at Crescent Junction, Utah.  The site is about 30 miles north of Moab, and is in a formation called Mancos Shale bedrock, a hard, almost impenetrable formation that will isolate the site from any aquifer.  After all the tailings have been removed from the Moab site and placed in storage, it will be capped and should be safe for at least 1000 years.

I asked Mr. Metzler about the possibility that the tailings were still polluting the river, and he assured me there is absolutely no contamination.  He said tests from a few hundred feet south of the Ajax site showed no increase in radiation other than background, caused by nature.

Taking my query a bit further, some 500 miles, I spoke with Mitch Basefsky, PIO for the Tucson Water District, and he assured me they are monitoring the level of radiation in water coming into the area from the Colorado River via the Central Arizona Project.  Basefsky said they have not seen a change in water radioactivity over the years, but remain concerned that eventually, if nothing is done to stem the release of radioactive materials into the river, it will become a problem here.

So, Where’s The Radiation Coming From?

Southern Nevada’s Mulroy has supposedly written federal Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne, asking him to “carefully evaluate” further uranium mining along the Colorado to determine the risk of further contamination of the river.

I’ve tried for days to get someone in her office to talk with me about her statement and what they’re finding in the water near Las Vegas, but no one has been forthcoming, and I can find nothing on the SNWA website concerning the issue.

There are no operating uranium mines in Utah, and according to Mayor Sakrison, most of the abandoned sites have been cleaned up, and clean water is leaving the Moab area.  What’s the problem?

Grand Canyon Exploration and Possible Uranium Mining

While writing this story, word came to me from the Sierra Club, stating the House Natural Resources Committee has ordered the Bush administration to immediately stop mining claims on public lands surrounding the Grand Canyon.  Good news, because of fears that pollution from uranium mines could threaten the drinking water for more than 25 million people living in the southwest, and just the idea that mining operations are going on within three miles of the canyon is unthinkable.

Until I hear something concrete from the folks in Nevada, there appears little or no danger at this time from uranium-polluted Colorado River water.

Stay tuned.

Links to Related Articles:

Uranium Mining Claims in Grand Canyon Area Ordered Withdrawn

Does Sen. John McCain Approve of Proposed Uranium Mines Near the Grand Canyon?

Federal Judge Blocks Uranium Mining Near Grand Canyon

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9 thoughts on “Is The Colorado River Becoming Radioactive from Upstream Uranium Mines?”

  1. Pat Mulroy’s concern is in line with the environmental community, Arizona governor, Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent and many local scientists and hydrologists.

    Numerous scientists and hydrologists have cited great concern that the cumulative impact of exploration and actual mining can contaminate the groundwater in the area as well as the Grand Canyon watersheds. These scientists have advised against mining in this ecologically significant region. It is not only the mine near Moab but the potential harm from drilling hundreds of holes on the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon exploring and mining for uranium that has led to this concern.

    Any impacts from uranium mining in this region are likely to be irreversible. In fact, Horn Creek in the Grand Canyon National Park still has high levels of radiation even 50 years after the Orphan Mine was closed. This uncertainly and potential for harm was recently cited by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality as the reason for rejecting several water permits for renewed mining operations near the Canyon.

    The recent congressional emergency withdrawal of lands in the Grand Canyon Watershed from uranium mining is exciting progress in the quest to protect the Grand Canyon region and its residents from additional harm wrought by years of uranium contamination.

    Congress had to act because the Bush Administration won’t. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are more than 500,000 abandoned mines that will cost $50 billion to reclaim. Many Hopi and Navajo are still dealing with the ramifications of these unreclaimed mined sites.

    This resolution is about protecting the Grand Canyon, a world class natural wonder, as well as the health and homes of millions of people that rely on the waters of the Colorado River – including the Havasupai, the Navajo and the millions of people downstream in Phoenix, Las Vegas and southern California.

    Stacey Hamburg
    Sierra Club
    Grand Canyon Protection Campaign
    Conservation Program Coordinator
    Flagstaff, AZ

  2. There are abandoned uranium mines in that area. The reason why the information is so sparse, or non-existent is that records from that era are lost or were consider to be matters of national security, then were hidden from the public as well as from the Communists nuclear threat.
    Although you did an excellent job asking questions about uranium mining and water monitoring from the state regulators, you didn’t ask the right questions.
    If you did ask the right questions, you’d have discovered the truth about uranium mining in the “Uranium Belt” that the mining companies were not required to restore their uranium mines to pre-mining conditions nor were they required to prevent uranium residues from entering the environment and rivers. This results from the laxity in the mining laws.
    Ask the right questions or don’t bother being a nuclear shill!

  3. Yea, like Dustin said. Why would we hold the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA responsible for anything? Oh, that’s right, BECAUSE HE’S PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!

  4. Just to clarify for you: “President Bush, however, included NO money in his 2000 budget for the removal project.”

    The budget for the 2000 year is written up at least 1-2 years before it goes into effect, which would have occurred during the Clinton administration.

    I love how just about every environmental story has to get its President Bush bash comment in somewhere in the article. It’s not just one person’s fault for the environmental issues and concerns in this country, it’s also Congress, and careless businesses who don’t care for the environment.

  5. I know for a fact that there are a number of wide-open abandoned uranium mines w/ acres of tailings right over the border in the Paradox Valley area.

    Mountain biking the mesas overlooking that valley leaves you with a very healthy glow.

  6. Being from the area (60 miles south) I am well aware of the operations of mines in that area…40 miles south there was a mine running for several years that was managed from a company based in Canada 2 purposes: Copper and Uranium…Also in the town of Monticello, Utah there was a huge amount of Uranium mining during the 60’s and 70’s…they were shut down eventually, but then the geniuses in the area decided to make brick from the soil causing a chain reaction where today the city is suing the state because the majority have cancer…

  7. Go to and do a search on Uranium. There are, apparently, a lot of uranium mining operations starting up.

  8. Did you consider the fact that uranium is a naturallyt occurring element? There are numerous radioactive elements present in the colorado plateau. Look at the Paria river – it was listed as threatened by beyllium in the 80’s & 90’s…

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