Moab UMTRA Project team members stood near a shipping container that held the eight-millionth ton of material from the uranium mill tailings pile just north of Moab. The Grand County Council and Mayor Dave Sakrison are urging Utah's congressional delegation to intervene for a reallocation of funding for the project. [Photo courtesy of Lee Shenton]

Just weeks ago, a top federal official reiterated her agency’s commitment to future funding for the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project. So it came as a surprise to community leaders when her office subsequently announced that it is proposing to cut the project’s budget by 10 percent in the coming fiscal year.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Environmental Management said it is seeking a “modest” $3.86 million in budget cuts for the 2017 federal fiscal year, which runs from October 2016 through September 2017.

In response, the Grand County Council voted unanimously on Tuesday, March 1, to send a letter that asks Utah’s congressional delegation to intervene for a reallocation of project funding, which topped $38 million this year. Congress isn’t expected to vote on a 2017 appropriations bill until later this year, but city and county officials don’t want to take any chances in the meantime, Grand County Council member Mary McGann said.

“It’s important,” McGann said. “We’re a small town. People will lose jobs, and the longer we wait to get that (tailings) pile out of here, the more likely it is we’ll have a flood.”

If funding shortages continued beyond next year, county and city leaders want to ensure that federal officials are aware of potential health, safety and economic issues that could arise under a reduced shipment schedule.

“We’ve been down this road before, and we just want to get this thing cleaned up,” said Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison, who co-signed the letter to Utah’s delegation.

With a schedule slowdown come layoffs, and there will be an “inevitable and substantial turnover” with each layoff, leading to costs that far outweigh any gains from short-term trimming of funding, the council’s letter says.

It notes that Grand County’s unemployment rate in 2015 was 5.7 percent – more than two percentage points higher than the state average. Employing more than 100 people, the project represents a significant source for year-round jobs in the region.

The letter also notes that if the Colorado River spills over its banks during high-water years, major flooding at the UMTRA site could potentially infiltrate the pile and contaminate water that 25 million downstream residents use.

“This risk will remain until the pile is moved,” it says.

As more of the tailings pile is exposed to the elements, county and city officials also note that dust must be mitigated on a routine basis.

“(Dust) must continue to be controlled even if (tailings) aren’t being shipped to prevent windblown contamination from going off site,” they wrote.

The DOE’s Office of Environmental Management said that its proposed reduction is needed to align its priorities throughout the Moab UMTRA cleanup complex, which includes a long-term disposal cell near Crescent Junction.

“The decrease reflects (a) shift in activities from transportation of tailings to excavation of disposal cell capacity,” the agency said in its budget justification to Congress.

In other words, Grand County UMTRA Liaison Lee Shenton said, the proposed cut reflects a move to increase capacity at the long-term disposal cell.

“So what they’re doing is slowing down the tailings (shipments), because, in essence, they’ve run out of space (near Crescent Junction),” Shenton said.

However, the DOE said its request does support continued progress to remove and transport uranium mill tailings to the disposal cell.

“Options for managing the work and the shipping/ disposal schedules are under discussion,” the agency said in a statement to the Moab Sun News. “No decisions have been made.”

The proposed budget cuts were announced shortly after Office of Environmental Management Deputy Chief of Staff Lori Largen congratulated the Moab UMTRA team in person for reaching two milestones in the project’s history.

Since the first rail shipment of tailings left the site in April 2009, the DOE and its contractors have removed more than 8 million tons of material from the pile near the banks of the Colorado River. They reached the estimated halfway cleanup mark with an enviable safety record, putting in 2.5 million hours, or about 2,200 days, without a work-related lost-time injury or illness.

At the time, Largen reiterated the agency’s commitment to securing future funding for the project.

“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,” Largen said earlier this year.

Subject to the whims of annual federal budget appropriations, the Moab UMTRA Project has run into funding setbacks multiple times since cleanup work began almost seven years ago. With an infusion of federal stimulus money in 2010 and 2011, the project gained momentum, but in ensuing years, funding cuts and acts of nature have interrupted progress at the cleanup site.

While budget constraints have contributed to the delay of the disposal cell expansion, Shenton noted that the project team also had to divert funding to clean up a massive rock slide that temporarily shut down the rail-loading facility.

“There’s some aspect of it that’s related to that rockfall from November (2014), because they spent about that amount to mitigate that rockfall that they would have spent to expand the disposal cell in a more timely fashion,” he said.

Both Sakrison and McGann are optimistic that as their request for funding reaches decision-makers in Washington, full funding will be reinstated.

“I think our congressional delegation gets it and the state gets it,” Sakrison said. “This is a pretty big cut; it’s going to have a substantial effect on employment and the economic well-being of our community.”

McGann also encouraged members of the public concerned about the rate of progress at the project to contact their state representatives and request that full funding be reinstated.

According to the DOE, the project will begin excavating the third phase of the Crescent Junction disposal cell later this month, and cell excavation will continue in 2017. Equipment maintenance will be another focus area, as some of the project’s equipment is reaching life expectancy, the DOE said.

County council, mayor urge Congress to restore funding for tailings cleanup

“I think our congressional delegation gets it and the state gets it … This is a pretty big cut; it’s going to have a substantial effect on employment and the economic well-being of our community.”