Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah (second from right), toured the Moab UMTRA Project site on Monday, Aug. 29, with Grand County Council member Mary McGann (back to camera); Moab UMTRA Federal Project Director Don Metzler; Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee member Joette Langianese; and Frank Marcinowski, an official with the Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management. A truck driver at the site was injured less than two hours after Chaffetz' visit, causing an unexpected delay in tailings shipments. [Photo courtesy of Wendee Ryan]

Cleanup work at the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project site ground to a halt this week, following a truck accident that left the driver with significant knee injuries.

The unidentified contractor from Grand Junction, Colorado, was bound for the project’s rail-loading facility above Potash Road with a sealed container full of uranium mill tailings at about 1:50 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 29. As his truck rounded a corner, it tipped on its side, and the container opened, spilling an estimated one-third to one-half of its contents into a nearby ditch, according to Grand County UMTRA Liaison Lee Shenton.

The driver, who reportedly sustained minor bumps to his head, was transported to Moab Regional Hospital’s emergency room for treatment of his injuries; he was released later that day. Others who are responsible for handling the containers at the project site about 4 road miles north of downtown Moab were reportedly sent home until the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 6.

“Basically, the project is on hold until they get that truck hauled away and clean up that spot,” Shenton said.

That cleanup process is not as easy as it might sound, given the location of the accident, and the fact that the tailings contain low levels of radioactivity.

According to Shenton, the incident occurred along a tight spot on the haul road, so it was challenging to get the truck upright on its wheels, while trying to ensure that additional tailings don’t spill out of the damaged shipping container.

“The project team’s got a real logistical problem here,” Shenton said.

“There isn’t room for the trucks to get by, and they have to deal with the contamination, because that’s nominally the ‘clean’ side (of the project site),” he added.

On Tuesday, Aug. 30, the project team’s leaders met to map out their strategy to isolate the spill area so that in the event of a rainstorm, the tailings aren’t washed downhill. By the following day, the truck had been removed from the scene, and some project workers returned to the job.

Wendee Ryan, the project’s contracted public affairs manager with S&K Aerospace, noted that the accident occurred on a haul road that is off limits to the public and posed no risk to anyone nearby.

“While there was a spill of mill tailings, it did not result in any human exposure to contamination,” Ryan said. “The area was secured and the incident is being investigated.”

Shenton said that subsequent evaluations showed that radiation exposure levels in the immediate area were all well within guidelines.

Of all places, the accident occurred on a sliver of land that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administers within the UMTRA project site.

Acting BLM District Manager Beth Ransel said her agency has “every confidence” in the response and cleanup efforts that are underway at the site. The BLM will continue to work closely with the DOE’s contractor throughout the remainder of the cleanup, she said.

Although crews could continue to fill shipping containers with tailings, Shenton said it wouldn’t make sense to do so until the haul road is clear and the spill site has been remediated.

“Because if the haul road is closed … they couldn’t do anything,” he said.

The Moab UMTRA Project is a legacy of the Cold War arms race and the 1950s uranium boom years in southeastern Utah.

The DOE and its contractors are just over halfway through the process of cleaning up the former Atlas Mill site along the banks of the Colorado River. So far, they’ve moved more than 8 million tons of material by rail to a long-term disposal cell near Crescent Junction, which is located about 31 miles north of Moab.

When the project launched in 2009, the pace of cleanup work got off to a running start, thanks to an infusion of federal stimulus money. In more recent years, though, the project has been subject to the whims of congressional budget appropriations and administrative decisions at the DOE’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

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.

More recently, the project’s champions in Congress secured $2.8 million more than President Barack Obama’s administration originally proposed for the coming federal fiscal year. Yet just weeks after a top DOE official reiterated her agency’s commitment to the project, the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management announced that it was seeking a “modest” $3.8 million cut to its budget.

The Office of Environmental Management said that its proposed reduction is needed to align its priorities throughout the Moab UMTRA cleanup complex, including the 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 the wake of that announcement, lead contractor Portage, Inc., laid off 31 of the project team’s 113 workers in late April, and scaled the number of weekly tailings shipments to Crescent Junction from four trainloads per week to two.

Congressman chides DOE for funding cuts, vows continued support for poject

The Aug. 29 accident occurred just hours after Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, toured the site with Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison, Grand County Council member Mary McGann and Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee member Joette Langianese.

“How ironic is it that it happened two hours after Congressman Chaffetz left the site?” Shenton asked.

Speaking immediately after his visit to the tailings pile, Chaffetz repeatedly used the words “frustrating” and “frustrated” to describe his feelings about the budget cuts and “involuntary separations” of project workers.

“For them to lay off 31 workers was devastating,” he told the Moab Sun News. “It didn’t add up; it made no sense.”

Chaffetz said he’s read articles that include comments from agency officials who try to justify the budget cuts, but he isn’t buying their arguments.

“It’s fiction to suggest it was a funding problem,” he said.

Even as the Moab UMTRA Project’s needs pile up, he said, the DOE’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C., received an 80 percent funding boost this year, and it’s seeking another 8 percent increase next year.

“We’ve made it exceedingly clear how frustrated we are, especially because we increased their funding,” he said.

While Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are increasingly divided these days, Chaffetz said there is broad bipartisan support in Congress for additional project funding.

He singled out Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-California, for her work with his office, and said there’s no reason why the cleanup work should be moving at a slower pace, since they and others are committed to the project.

“We want to get this thing done and over, and behind us,” he said.

Incident occurs just hours after Congressman Chaffetz visits tailings pile