A sign at the entrance to the uranium tailings clean-up site, known as UMTRA, indicates that as of Oct. 7, 2012 its crews had worked 1,066 days without an accident. Most of the project's employees will be laid off for three months beginning Dec. 1 and concerns have been expressed about how many of these experienced workers will choose to return to the project in March. (Photo by Andrew Mirrington/ Moab Sun News)

Workers performing uranium tailings removal at the UMTRA (Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action) site just north of Moab were informed by their managers last week that a three month furlough will begin Dec. 1.

“This is a planned curtailment,” said Donald Metzler, federal project manager for the Department of Energy (DOE). “It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.”

There are now 112 employees working at the 480-acre site where Atlas Minerals Corporation processed uranium ore from 1956 to 1984. Approximately 25 employees will be retained during the furlough for safety and maintenance. No tailings will be moved during the furlough.

The site clean-up began in 2009 with Energy Solutions at the helm. Crews were hired to move 16 million tons of uranium tailings from the west bank of the Colorado River three miles north of Moab to a permanent disposal site 30 miles north near Crescent Junction. A third of the project was completed before it was put out for bid again.

The Department of Energy requested bids from contractors to move 650,000 tons of tailings a year 2011. Portage, Inc. was awarded the $121 million 5-year contract in November 2011. Energy Solutions challenged the bid. When the bid was upheld in April 2012, Portage announced that it would operate on a nine-month schedule.

“While they could operate 12 months a year, it would be a more expensive option because of the low rate of tailings removal,” said Lee Shenton, liaison for UMTRA. “The contract specified 650,000 tons per year.”

Jeff Biagini, on-site manager for Portage Inc., said that the furlough had been planned since April.

“It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone,” Biagini said. “We were hoping for additional funding and that didn’t happen.”

Moab City and Grand County councils sent several letters appealing to Senators and Congressmen to allow for additional Department of Energy funding for year-round tailings removal.

“Obviously I’m very disappointed. I feel like I’ve failed the community and the workers out there not to secure some kind of financial sustainability,” said Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison. “I’m disappointed in DOE and disappointed in Portage. I’m disappointed in our congressional delegation, that they didn’t help us, or even try at all.”

Sakrison said Congressman Jim Matheson was the only one to take any interest, “and he’s not even our congressman anymore.”

The city and the county are still pursuing congressional and state leads to secure additional DOE funding for the next four years of the Portage contract in order to allow year-round tailings removal and employment.

“Time is of the essence,” Sakrison said. “I don’t want to see a repeat of what we’re going to experience this year.”

Metzler expressed that securing funding this year was difficult.

“We have been trying to demonstrate why the project could potentially help us with more funding,” Metzler. “We have to understand the constraints that the federal government and economy is under.”

He is optimistic that DOE funding will be available to allow Portage to operate year-round for the rest of the contract.

“We’re hoping this curtailment is a one time deal and we can all get through this and the pains associated with that and get going again.” Metzler said.

Sakrison is very concerned that residents will leave.

“There will be an outmigration in this community. If there is no job, they’re gone,” Sakrison said. “These people have families. To expect them to find jobs in the winter is unrealistic. If they leave the area it will have a multiplier affect on our economy. This is a no-win situation for the community and the people that work out there,” Sakrison said. “I feel bad for the people who have to find jobs at Christmas.”

Biagini is concerned that furloughed workers will not return.

“One of our biggest risks is that they will go elsewhere,” Biagini said.

Shenton pointed out that there are more than 200 jobs available in the Uintah Basin that require the similar skill sets of those now employed at the Moab Tailings Site.

Due to radioactivity and safety concerns, additional training is necessary for all employees at the site. If workers don’t return to their jobs in March, additional time will be necessary to train new hires.

“Even though I may be able to hire a truck driver or equipment operator, I’ll still have to give him two weeks of training before he can begin regular job functions,” Biagini said.

Metzler expressed that more than time would be lost.

“It would be hard to replace this work force if they didn’t return. The project has an outstanding safety record.” Metzler said. “Part of having an outstanding safety record is that the workers come focused, they know the procedures, and they know the hazards. They work such so that there aren’t safety incidents. To have a project with this type of culture and workforce is not haphazard. It is because of efforts by everyone.”

Biagini said that they are looking to see if Portage and some of the subcontractors will be able to find additional work during the furlough.

“As we go into the next week or two we’ll know if we have another job for them,” Biagini said.

Additional employees may be needed to do construction work at the Portage site in Crescent Junction.

“Honestly I do worry about this and lose sleep over this,” Biagini said. “We’re all genuinely concerned for the workers. It may not be fair, but it is what it is. We want the workers to understand we’re going to be straight with them.”