Beneath the murky green waters on the north end of Lake Powell, entombed within the tons of silt that have been carried down the Colorado River over the years, lies a 26,000-ton pile of un-remediated uranium mill tailings. It’s just one polonium-, bismuth-, thorium-, and radium-tainted reminder of the way the uranium industry, enabled by the federal government, ravaged the West and its people for decades.
During the uranium days of the West, more than a dozen mills—all with processing capacities at least 10 times larger than the one at White Canyon—sat on the banks of the Colorado River and its tributaries, including in Shiprock and Mexican Hat on the San Juan River; in Rifle and Grand Junction and Moab on the Colorado; and in Uravan along the San Miguel River, just above its confluence with the Dolores. They did not exactly dispose of their tailings in a responsible way.
At the Durango mill the tailings were piled into a hill-sized mound just a stone’s throw from the Animas River. They weren’t covered or otherwise contained, so when it rained tailings simply washed into the river. Worse, the mill’s liquid waste stream poured directly into the river at a rate of some 340 gallons per minute, or half-a-million gallons per day. It was laced not only with highly toxic chemicals used to leach uranium from the ore and iron-aluminum sludge, a milling byproduct, but also radium-tainted ore solids. (Crass self-promotion: For more details on the Durango mill read my book, River of Lost Souls).
Radium is highly radioactive and a “bone-seeker,” meaning that when it’s ingested it makes its way to the skeleton, where it decays into other radioactive daughter elements, including radon, and bombards the surrounding tissue with alpha, beta, and gamma radiation. According to the Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry, exposure leads to “anemia, cataracts, fractured teeth, cancer (especially bone cancer), and death.”