Moab UMTRA Federal Project Director Don Metzler, right, brought Moab City Council member Rani Derasary and other local steering committee members up to date on the project on Tuesday, July 26. [Photo by Lara Gale / Moab Sun News]

With funding cuts on the horizon, the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project team is moving into fiscal year 2017 determined to keep its costs from bogging down momentum toward completion.

Moab Federal Project Director Don Metzler said that given expected funding below $35 million annually, the project team plans to continue shipping tailings and debris by rail at the current rate of two trains per week.

That schedule pushes the project’s completion date beyond 2030. An additional $10 million annually would be needed to resume tailing shipments at the previous rate of four trainloads per week, Metzler said.

“We’re working through the layoffs; there has been a mourning process,” Metzler told Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee members during their quarterly meeting on Tuesday, July 26.

He was referring to the 31 project workers who were let go in May, when the decreased schedule took effect following the U.S. Department of Energy’s March announcement of funding cuts.

The UMTRA Project team is more than halfway through the process of moving more than 16 million tons of decades-old radioactive mill tailings from a flood-prone site next to the Colorado River in Moab to a long-term disposal cell near Crescent Junction, about 30 miles north of Moab.

The steering committee, made up of community, county and city leadership, is looking to state and national representatives to help restore funding to at least the 2016 level of $40 million, Grand County Council member Mary McGann said.

If $45 million is needed to fund the project’s timely completion, that is the amount the committee should lobby for, Grand County Community Development Director Zacharia Levine said.

Committee members agreed, however, that they should be ready to accept the level of funding they can get.

“There was a bit of a drop in lobbying in the past,” McGann said. “More than anything right now, we need to get in front of decision-makers and make sure our project isn’t forgotten.”

The project is competing for funds with other cleanup projects that are higher in toxicity and closer to major urban populations in Oregon, she said. However, a funding decrease in an amount that would hardly even be noticed at one of the larger-scale projects has a major impact on the Moab UMTRA Project.

“If our project could just be fully funded, it could be done in 10 years, and then all that money could go to these larger, more pressing projects,” she said. “There is no argument that all of them aren’t important. But $10 million is a drop in the bucket for these other sites, and it’s significant to us.”

The steering committee is hoping for at least $5 million from the State of Utah in 2017.

“We’re checking into (the Department of Energy) budget, first of all,” Utah State Sen. David Hinkins told the Moab Sun News.

Hinkins, R-Orangeville, pointed out that the Department of Energy has a fund specifically for uranium tailings mitigation which is funded through taxes on nuclear-generated power.

“Now that they’ve got it open, they’re definitely responsible to move it as fast as possible,” he said.

Hinkins also plans to look into the Utah Department of Environmental Quality budget to see if a line item exists for remediation projects like Moab UMTRA, he said. Funding a $5 million request from the general budget is not likely, he said, because the population affected is so small and it would compete against interests from education to health care that affect more of the state.

At the national level, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, sent a letter to the committee on June 24 detailing his efforts to champion the project.

“I assure you I will continue to fight for the UMTRA Project and ensure any end-of-year spending package includes the vital language specific to Moab,” Chaffetz said in the letter.

The steering committee briefly discussed ways that the project could most effectively use a one-time allocation. Completion of excavation work on the long-term disposal cell near Crescent Junction, or increasing wildlife and riparian vegetation restoration efforts, were options that committee members floated.

Two bighorn sheep were recently spotted drinking from a stock tank placed for wildlife on a cleared portion of the UMTRA site, Grand County UMTRA Liaison Lee Shenton said.

Surface water monitoring downstream of the site revealed no effect on river quality by the site, according to the report, and vegetation along the river, including cottonwood trees, globemallow and grass, is showing healthy growth.

“It’s exciting to hear how the wildlife are coming back,” McGann said. “Progress is slow, but it’s happening.”

Other achievements of the past year include movement of more than half a million tons of tailings and debris, taking the project over its halfway mark, according to a report on the project.

Fifty-two percent of the estimated 16 million tons of tailings and debris have been removed as of July 19. Also, contaminated ground water is no longer being stored in an evaporation pond on site; it is instead being pumped into holding tanks and sprayed onto the debris pile to keep dust down.

The project also restored storage containers used to transport the tailings between sites, and purchased more than 20 new ones. In spite of engineering specific to the project, the containers experience slow corrosion by the toxic materials they hold. The longer the project takes, the more likely such equipment will require extensive repair or replacement, Metzler said.

Shipments of debris from the demolished mill buildings buried in the tailings pile will be transported in truckloads to Crescent Junction via U.S. Highway 191 starting later this year.

The loads will be staggered and should have minimal to no impact on area traffic, Metzler said. The trucking company will be contracted, however, and lead contractor Portage, Inc., will not hire the additional labor.

What the project isn’t planning to do in the near-term is restore 31 full-time, benefited jobs, given the volatility of funding, the report states.

$10 million needed to return to normal operations

It’s exciting to hear how the wildlife are coming back … Progress is slow, but it’s happening.