The U.S. Department of Energy was hoping that 2015 would be a milestone year for its Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project, but Mother Nature had other plans.
A massive rock slide above the project’s rail loading bench last November interrupted operations, forcing crews to temporarily curtail shipments of tailings and other materials from the former Atlas uranium mill site. As a result, Grand County UMTRA Liaison Lee Shenton believes the agency might not quite reach its goal of celebrating the halfway cleanup mark this year.
To date, project crews have moved more than 7.32 million tons of material from the 130-acre pile along the banks of the Colorado River to a long-term disposal cell near Crescent Junction. That adds up to about 46 percent of the 16-million ton total, according to Shenton.
Faced with unexpected acts of nature and funding levels that vary from year to year, Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs questions whether the agency and its contractors will be able to fully remediate the site by 2025.
“It could be longer if it’s delayed again,” Tubbs said Feb. 24.
To keep the project timeline on track, Tubbs anticipates that the county council will support requests that ask Congress for more UMTRA funding.
“The council has not come up with that on its own, although I think that’s a good suggestion,” she said.
At full capacity, each 36-car trainload can move up to 144 containers of material.
Up until Nov. 18, 2014, UMTRA crews were shipping one full trainload per day, four days a week. But the rock slide that day sent debris plunging some 800 feet down the hillside above Potash Road. The slide formed a lighter-colored streak that is still clearly visible from miles away.
According to Shenton, Union Pacific Railroad and its contractors cleaned up the rail bench within four or five days. But Shenton said that UMTRA Project administrators were “understandably reluctant” to resume operations at the bench until they were certain that it was safe to do so.
Work at the bench only resumed after project administrators determined that the northern end was safe, and even then, shipments were scaled down to 64 containers per trainload, according to Shenton.
Within the last few weeks, Shenton said that shipments bumped up to 104 containers per day, four days a week. Even so, Shenton said the DOE now anticipates that it will fall about 200,000 tons short of its 900,000-ton target in 2015.
In the weeks after the rock slide, Shenton said that crews used their down time to catch up on one key project: They excavated huge chunks of concrete and rebar, steel cables, pipes and other potentially contaminated materials that Atlas Mill crews buried near the river.
“They made good use of their time and extracted quite a bit of mill debris out of the southern tip of the pile,” Shenton said.
As they prepare to ship that jagged and unevenly sized mill debris to the disposal site, crews are lining rail cars with plywood, instead of the typical plastic materials.
Inevitably, however, some pieces of mill debris won’t fit inside the rail cars, so Shenton anticipates that crews will have to ship them to Crescent Junction via truck. UMTRA administrators are committed to working out a schedule that minimizes any potential impacts on traffic along U.S. Highway 191, he said.
“I know that they’re very aware of that,” he said. “They don’t want the trucking to be an issue on Highway 191, especially during the tourist season.”
Work to bury that debris will be challenging, Shenton noted: Crews have to ensure that there aren’t any voids or gaps that could cause layers of protective caps to fail over the long term.
Catching up on the backlog of work is another challenge, he said – especially at the Crescent Junction-area site, where crews are developing the long-term disposal cell in phases.
“The biggest problem is that they’re coming close to filling up the part of the cell that they had excavated,” Shenton said. “It’s getting pretty crowded … They don’t really have much space left at the phase two part of the cell.”
During the project’s earliest years, cleanup work rushed along, thanks to a wealth of federal stimulus money. But the project is ultimately subject to the whims of Congress, and after the U.S. House and Senate scaled back funding, the DOE was forced to temporarily discontinue shipments in late 2012 and early 2013.
The energy department is seeking $37.6 million in funding for the federal government’s upcoming fiscal year. Even if Congress approves that amount, Shenton said the project still won’t have enough money to extend shipments beyond the current schedule of four days a week.
“Funding has been an issue for some time now,” he said.
Grand County Council vice chair Chris Baird agrees that unpredictable funding levels have posed a challenge over the years.
“It’s always been a struggle trying to maintain the funding that goes with a congressional action timeline,” he said.
But he’s hopeful that the county can use its voice to keep the project’s momentum going.
“I’m definitely in favor of getting the job done as quickly as possible,” Baird said.
For the latest updates on the Moab UMTRA project, go to gjem.energy.gov/moab/ and click on “Current Status.” You can also contact Shenton every Tuesday and Thursday at 435-259-1795, or email email@example.com.
County may ask Congress to increase project funding
I’m definitely in favor of getting the job done as quickly as possible.