[Photo courtesy of the Utah State Senate]

Moab’s Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project is receiving some important equipment upgrades to keep the project on track, but these efforts come at a time when rapidly changing federal priorities make the project’s future uncertain.

Don Metzler, the Federal Project Director overseeing the UMTRA project in Moab, told the Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 24, about two maintenance initiatives intended to keep the project running smoothly long-term.

In the fall of 2016, WBS Coatings, Inc., a Grand Junction, Colorado-based company, spray-coated the insides of approximately 150 of the containers used to transport the mill tailings.

“I call it the industrial-strength Rhino liner,” Metzler said, referring to a popular brand of truck-bed spray-coating. The tailings have corroded and abraded the insides of the containers, but Metzler said that so far, the coating has proven an effective reinforcement.

“We believe they’re holding up really well,” Metzler said. “We haven’t seen any deterioration or peeling.” Based on those positive results, 144 more containers are due to be coated in the coming months. Twenty-two new containers will also be purchased.

The specialized machines that load and unload the containers from trucks and trains, known as reach stackers, may also receive an upgrade.

“It turns out that the reach stackers that we’ve had ever since 2009 … this company doesn’t support them anymore,” Metzler said.

Five reach stackers made by Linde Material Handling are in use at the Moab and Crescent Junction UMTRA sites. Linde ceased manufacturing reach stackers after selling that part of its business to another company in 2013. Acquiring replacement parts as the machines age may become challenging, Metzler said.

“We’re in the process of working with a company that’s the leading reach stacker company in the world,” Metzler told the committee, “and they want to give us some money for these.”

Similar to a trade-in at a car dealership, the potential agreement would allow the UMTRA Project to obtain new reach stackers for a lower cost from Finnish manufacturer Kalmar Global. New reach stackers, Metzler said, would “last us easily to the end of the project.”

But while equipment updates will help keep the project’s infrastructure in good shape, the transition to a new presidential administration means that the project’s future funding status is uncertain. The federal Department of Energy provides 100 percent of UMTRA’s funding, and no Secretary of Energy has been confirmed yet for President Donald Trump’s administration, leaving the department’s priorities for the coming years in doubt.

According to the Department of Energy’s Grand Junction Office, the Moab project has been allocated funding through April 28, 2017, at a level consistent with the project’s 2016 allocation. Past April, the project’s future funding remains unknown.

In recent years, diminished funding slowed tailings transports to two trainloads per week and pushed the project’s predicted end date to 2032. The original predicted end date was 2019. Fifty-three percent of the tailings have been relocated so far from the project site along the banks of the Colorado River to a long-term disposal cell near Crescent Junction.

Grand County Council vice chair Mary McGann, who is also a member of the steering committee, has been working with Utah State Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, to pass a joint resolution in the state legislature urging the Department of Energy to allocate $45 million in annual funding for UMTRA – approximately $6 million more than the project received in 2016 – in order to complete the tailings relocation by 2025.

The Utah State Senate’s Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality committee unanimously approved the resolution on Wednesday, Jan. 25, and the Senate should vote on it this week.

“It went really well,” Hinkins said of the bill’s introduction. But he acknowledged that the resolution may not carry much weight at the Department of Energy.

“I think they pretty well do what they want,” Hinkins said. “I can get the bill out; that don’t mean nothing.” Though he has tried to speak with Department of Energy officials, he has not received a clear answer on why the project’s funding decreased.

“If it wasn’t gonna be funded, they shouldn’t have started the damn thing,” Hinkins said, noting the danger to both Moab and communities downriver from the remaining tailings. He hopes that the joint resolution will at least generate media attention, and some public pressure on the federal authorities.

Museum of Moab to become UMTRA neighbor

Lee Shenton, who is both Grand County’s UMTRA liaison and a member of the board of directors of the Dan O’Laurie Museum of Moab, told the steering committee that the board has reached an agreement with an anonymous benefactor to purchase the parcel of land bordering the eastern edge of the UMTRA site. The parcel is at 1901 N. U.S. Highway 191, adjacent to Courthouse Wash on the highway’s western side, by the Fairfield Inn & Suites.

“We need a significant amount … of (more) capital to get to the point where we can actually start designing and building,” Shenton said in an interview afterward. “Having the property, of course, is a key step along the way.”

The museum’s board will be working with an experienced capital campaigns consultant from Spokane, Washington, to plan its fundraising campaign. Museum of Moab Director John Foster said that the consultant’s initial study should be completed in May.

Foster said that a new location and a new building will allow the museum to host larger permanent exhibits, a greater number of temporary exhibits and more educational programming.

“A larger facility, in a more visible location, that’s easier for people to find and has, literally, more traffic in front of it, will better allow us to fulfill the mission of the museum,” Foster said. “We could keep doing what we were doing in the current facility, but it would be difficult to improve our offering to the community without expanding.”

The board hopes relocation can begin in three to five years, Shenton said.

If it wasn’t gonna be funded, they shouldn’t have started the damn thing.

Project moves forward as future funding remains an open question