Workers at the UMTRA site remove temporary liners from the rail cars used in the removal of mine tailings. Portage, Inc., the operator of the site, recently announced that 34 employees who were previously scheduled to be furloughed over the winter will remain on site to install new, permanent Teflon liners in the rail cars. [Courtesy Portage, Inc.]

Fewer employees will be furloughed than expected at the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) site this winter

In early October UMTRA managers believed that approximately 87 employees out of 112 would be furloughed for three months. That number is now 27.

“This has turned out much better than we ever envisioned a few months ago,” said Donald Metzler, federal project manager for the Department of Energy (DOE).

UMTRA will lay-off the 27 employees on Nov. 29. The official start date for the site will be Feb. 28, which will allow returning employees to have full benefits beginning March 1.

The biggest change since October is that 34 employees will be retained to install permanent liners in the container cars. The cost savings that Portage will find from using permanent liners rather than the temporary plastic liners outweighs any additional costs of keeping the 34 employees on site this winter.

“There is a list of reasons to do this. From a safety perspective, these liners make a lot of sense. From wear and tear perspective, it will help save the containers for the life of the project,” Metzler said. “But the serendipitous part is that it will keep 34 employees employed during the curtailment.”

Portage will also keep three mechanics employed to do maintenance work on equipment to make sure it is “good to go” the next year.

“There is maintenance you can do only when the equipment is not in operation,” Biagini said.

The equipment was purchased brand new by Energy Solutions in Spring 2009. For a period of time it was going 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Even though it is good equipment and relatively new, there is a lot of hours on this stuff. This is a good time to be doing this,” Biagini said.

Eight employees will be working out of town with subcontractors.

Four of those employees are Radiation Control Technicians who are already in Las Vegas working with DeNuke.

“The project last three months, almost exactly the same time as the curtailment,” Biagini said.

Three employees will go to Huntington to work with Nielson Construction. A final person will work for AMEC in Grand Junction, Colo.

That leaves three remaining from the original 112 employees.

“One employee left on his own accord, one will be retained as a temporary employee per project as needed, and one has a contract that ends in December,” Biagini said.

Both Biagini and Metzler are confident that most of the furloughed workers will return.

Metzler commended Biagini for minimizing the impact on workers.

“Jeff did an outstanding job. He met and exceeded on a personal basis to come up with a scenario that has the most minimum impact to their lives. It turned out good considering the situation we’re in,” Metzler said.

While it is unsure whether DOE will fund the project to work year-round next year, Metzler is optimistic.

He cited the efforts of the City of Moab and the Grand County Council in working with senators and congressmen for additional funding.

“They have worked hard to make Washingtonians aware. They have done a great job. We’re just in a tough environment these days. No one has any answers about federal spending or revenues,” Metzler said.

Metzler said that the furloughed employees will receive a letter in January to confirm whether they will return to work. A full week of training will be required in order for the returning employees to be able to begin the work excavating tailings on March 11.

Potential replacement workers for those who may not return will have to be hired a week earlier than furloughed employees in order to have the required two weeks of initial hazardous materials and radiation training.

Furloughed UMTRA employees should not be required to look for work in order to qualify for unemployment benefits during the three-month period.

“As long as they have a date of returning to work, they don’t have to continue to seek employment in order to receive benefits,” said Curt Stewart, public information officer for Utah Workforce Services.

The UMTRA 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.

Biagini is relieved that work has been found for the majority of the employees.

Thirty-seven employees will be retained for ongoing and environmental and safety program that is required even when crews are not excavating or shipping materials to Crescent Junction.

“The majority are full-time,” Biagini said. “Even those that are part-time, they should retain benefits.”

Mayor Dave Sakrison was relieved to hear that the number of furloughed employees was dramatically reduced.

“That sure is better than 80-some people being laid off,” Sakrison said. “It could be better.”

Sakrison plans to continue to make pleas for additional funding.

“We’re going to continue trying to get something resolved and get it done,” Sakrison said. “A lot of it depends on Congress and the fiscal constraints on Congress to get this done and get it over with.”