Durango's albatross: a radioactive tailings pile that won't go away

This Western resort town has a 11/2 million ton problem: an old uranium mill-tailings pile.

Banked on a hillside within a half-mile of this town's picturesque narrow-gauge railroad depot and historic section is a massive monument to the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort that built the first atomic bomb. Trying to clean up this pile has turned into a drawn-out local saga, one being duplicated in a number of areas.

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has identified 24 inactive tailings sites, containing 25 million tons of uranium-enriched material, around the nation. They add up to a mammoth environmental problem. Although not highly radioactive, these sites give off higher-than-normal levels of radon, a radioactive gas that can harm humans, and will continue to do so for thousands of years. Durango is listed as one of four sites with the highest potential to harm humans.

Critics charge that the current administration is taking a casual attitude toward this problem. As a result, they say, there's been little new progress toward a solution. Robert D. Hatfield, a stock broker and Durango's part-time mayor, says, ''The government's lack of urgency makes it very frustrating.''

In the late 1960s people began to worry about uranium mill tailings. ''These do not represent an overwhelming hazard, but they are clearly undesirable,'' explains Dr. Stanley Lichtman, project leader for tailing cleanup standards at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The piles are radioactive and radioactivity is thought to cause cancer, he explains. Experts predict a relatively small increase in the cancer rate, so small it can't be isolated from other causes, for towns with Durango's problem.

Ticking off additional reasons for the pile's undesirability, Mayor Hatfield says, ''It's ugly. Dust blows off it on a windy day. I wouldn't be surprised if, during a heavy rain, the pile could slump into the river. . . . And the land it's on would be valuable if it were moved.''

The tailings date back to 1880. During World War II, they were reprocessed for the uranium they contained. Ranchers Development & Exploration Company of Albuquerque, N.M., bought the ore pile in the mid 1970s. But the state Department of Health, finding fault with the way the firm intended to stabilize the pile, stymied plans to move and once again reprocess it.

''We still believe our plan was fine and that we are better equipped to analyze the situation than those doing the licensing,'' says Herb Campbell, Ranchers' vice-president. ''If we had been given the go-ahead, the pile would be gone by now,'' he say.

The battle between the state and Ranchers lasted through 1978 when Congress passed the Mill Tailings Act which required the EPA to come up with standards for inactive tailings. In 1980, the agency issued proposed standards that were criticized for being too stringent and, in many cases, impractical to implement. Soon the EPA will issue its final standards. But these are almost certain to be challenged in court.

''According to what we've heard, they will come out with a 50-fold increase in surface radiation levels allowed and a reduction in erosion protection longevity from 1,000 to 500 years,'' says Mr. Robinson. EPA's Dr. Lichtman admits some relaxation can be expected.

If this is the case, then it is likely that the Sierra Club will take the EPA to court. And either way, observers expect the uranium industry to mount a legal challenge because they want to head off application of similar standards to tailings piles at active mines.

Meanwhile, the DOE has been working on various methods to cover tailings piles. They are looking at combinations of materials which reduce the rate of radon diffusion, are inexpensive, and will last for centuries.

Current DOE estimates for the cost of moving the Durango tailings pile 5.5 miles (it will take three years and 100,000 truckloads) and then covering it runs to $33 million. The federal government is to pay 90 percent and the state government 10 percent of the total cost. To do this, the government will have to buy the pile from Ranchers.

But DOE's budget for this program was cut to $17.6 million from a requested $ 30 million. And DOE experts have begun talking about temporary measures, which suggest they are thinking of a long cleanup period.

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