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Associated Press Deadly tailings

SALT LAKE CITY - Even as legislation to deal with uranium tailings adjacent to the Colorado River was being readied in Congress, the U.S. Geological Survey issued a report indicating ammonia from the tailings could be killing fish.

The 10.5 million ton pile sits 750 feet from the Colorado River outside Moab in southeastern Utah. The last owner was the now-bankrupt Denver-based Atlas Corp., which posted a $6.5 million cleanup bond, a small fraction of the expected cost.

Officials of various government agencies and environmentalists have debated for years whether the tailings pile should be capped to halt the leaching of toxic and radioactive minerals into the groundwater or the tailings should be moved and who should pay the costs.

Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, has been preparing legislation to shift the cleanup responsibility from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to the Department of Energy. The legislation also would provide money for moving the tailings, which is expected to cost more than $300 million.

Some of the money is to come from a deal announced in January in which 80,000 acres of oil- and gas-rich land would be returned to the Ute Indian Tribe. The Utes agreed to return a portion of the royalties to help pay for the tailings cleanup.

Environmentalists have contended that contaminants from the tailings could threaten two species of endangered fish: the razorback sucker and the Colorado pike minnow.

A report by the U.S. Geological Survey was released Monday which summarized its research since 1998 on the tailings risk. The studies are continuing.

It said ammonia levels have been routinely measured in surface water exceeding 20 milligrams per liter and some samples have been as high as 1,500 milligrams per liter.

James F. Richfield, research ecologist for the Geological Survey, said tests in the laboratory and onsite tests show the levels are high enough to kill the fish. The onsite tests involved putting caged fish in contaminated backwaters. In some cases, minnows died within an hour.

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