[Photo courtesy of Wendee Ryan]

The holiday season is behind them now, but everyone who’s involved in the cleanup of the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project (UMTRA) still has other reasons to celebrate.

The project reached an historic milestone last week, as crews removed the eight-millionth ton of material from the pile just north of Moab, and reached the estimated halfway cleanup mark.

At the same time, the project team commemorated a new safety record that was about 2,200 days in the making. As of late December 2015, crews at the tailings pile and the long-term disposal cell near Crescent Junction put in 2.5 million hours without a work-related lost-time injury or illness.

Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee member Mark Sovine, who previously worked as a safety manager at Kennecott Copper, said the UMTRA Project team’s safety record is an impressive feat.

“I think our safety culture [at Kennecott] was extreme, but I think the best we did was 180 days,” he said.

Sovine told U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) officials that local residents, project employees and their families all value the project team’s commitment to safety.

“It reflects very well on you guys,” he said.

Grand County UMTRA Liaison Lee Shenton, who also managed chemical plants for 15 years before he retired, called the statistic a “spectacular accomplishment.”

“Seriously, to have that kind of safety record with the kind of activities that your crew does,” he said. “I mean, it’s basically a mining operation out there with big, big equipment, and overlain with the chemical and radiation hazard. And to go that long without a lost-time injury is just really notable.”

U.S. Department of Energy official Mark Whitney planned to congratulate the project’s team in person, but heavy snowfall along the East Coast left him stranded in the Baltimore area. Lori Largen, who serves as the deputy chief of staff for the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management, spoke instead on his behalf.

“One of the things that (Whitney) did want to say was it is such an accomplishment of what we’ve done here in the Department of Energy in meeting the halfway mark and the safety record (here),” Largen said.

In one bit of unexpected but good news for the project, it benefited this fiscal year from an additional $1 million in federal funding, bringing its current budget up to about $38 million. Largen reiterated the agency’s commitment to securing future funding for the project, which is subject to congressional appropriations.

“This is one of our smaller sites, but ‘small sites’ does not mean small risk, and one of the things they’re looking at is, each site is just as important as the other,” she said.

The uranium mill tailings pile covers about 130 acres of the 480-acre site near the banks of the Colorado River. It’s the legacy of a Cold War-era facility that processed radioactive and heavy metal-laden uranium ore from numerous mines dotted across the region.

Rail shipments of tailings and other potentially hazardous material to the disposal cell about 30 miles north of Moab began in April 2009, and they’re expected to continue through 2025, depending on how much project funding Congress allocates each year.

Thanks to an early infusion of federal stimulus money, the pace of the cleanup work reached its peak to date in 2010 and 2011. However, rail shipments to the Crescent Junction site were curtailed in late 2012 and early 2013 due to funding cuts. Shipments were again interrupted in late 2014, after a rock slide temporarily shut down operations at the rail loading facility just above Potash Road.

Despite those setbacks, Moab Federal Project Director Don Metzler links the overall pace of progress to the insights that his agency gained in the 1980s and 1990s, as officials and contractors cleaned up contaminated sites elsewhere. Moving forward, he voiced confidence that project crews won’t encounter much more than the 16 million tons of material that are believed to be buried at the site.

“Luckily, when this project came so late in the whole era of uranium cleanups, we were able to use the lessons learned from all those earlier years, so we really think we have a good number with our 16 (million tons),” he said. “Probably it’s not going to be less, for sure … The only way it would move is to be more, and if this does move, then you will be the first to know as soon as we know.”

Needless to say, Metzler credits the project’s team for the success to date. The crew – 85 percent of whom are local residents – includes about 85 workers at the Moab site and 30 people at the Crescent Junction site.

Although the Crescent Junction crew members are working far away from the public’s view, Metzler’s most recent visit to that site served as a reminder of the important role that they play in the project.

“You could just tell that they carry a lot of pride with the way they interact with visitors,” he said.

As the overall team celebrated its safety record, an incident in the new year brought the uninterrupted streak to an end.

Crews at the Moab site came back from their “holiday pause” on a frigid Monday morning earlier this month, and as they were walking to a 6 a.m. safety meeting, one of the workers ventured onto an icy patch. Before he could safely retrace his steps, Metzler said, the man was down on the ground, breaking a kneecap in the fall.

“He’s back at work now with a brace, and everybody’s rooting for him,” Metzler said. “We all feel sorry for him, and really, management took the responsibility of it being, I think, our fault. We could have done a better job of just ensuring they’re weren’t any hazardous areas at the site.”

Someone else was walking with the man at the time, and Metzler said the accident should serve as a reminder that each person who is working on the project needs to look out for others.

“I think everyone has the takeaway, including myself and management, that we don’t ever want this to happen again,” he said.

After working for more than six years beforehand without a lost-time incident, it’s a setback, but Metzler said they’ll work to regain their record, one day at a time.

“We’ll build it back,” he said.

Crews celebrate 2.5 million hours work on hazardous mine tailings without a lost-time accident

It’s a spectacular accomplishment. Seriously, to have that kind of safety record with the kind of activities that your crew does … I mean, it’s basically a mining operation out there with big, big equipment, and overlain with the chemical and radiation hazard. And to go that long without a lost-time injury is just really notable.