Acting Moab UMTRA Federal Project Director John Sattler addressed the Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee on Thursday, April 27. Sattler told committee members that President Trump's wish list of spending priorities for the coming federal fiscal year could boost funding for his office, which oversees the Moab UMTRA Project. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

If President Donald Trump’s budget office sticks with its current spending priorities for the coming fiscal year, the agency that manages the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project could get an unexpected boost in funding.

But until that agency – the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management – finalizes its own budget priorities, it’s unclear how much of that funding would trickle down to the tailings project itself.

The president’s “skinny budget,” or wish list of spending priorities for the next federal fiscal year that runs from Oct. 1, 2017, through Sept. 30, 2018, includes $6.5 billion for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management. That’s up from just under $6.12 billion that the office previously requested for the current fiscal year under former President Barack Obama.

The cleanup of the former Atlas Mill site along the banks of the Colorado River just north of Moab is a legacy of Cold War-era demands for uranium during the nuclear arms race with the former Soviet Union, and the dawn of the nuclear energy industry. Crews are currently more than halfway through the process of moving an estimated 16 million tons of uranium mill tailings via rail from the UMTRA site to a long-term disposal cell near Crescent Junction about 30 miles north of Moab.

The pace of that cleanup took a hit during Obama’s final year in office: Just weeks after a top DOE official visited the site and reiterated her agency’s commitment to future funding for the project, her office announced a 10 percent cut in the project’s $38 million budget. In April 2016, lead contractor Portage, Inc., laid off 31 of the project’s 113 employees, and the project cut the number of its weekly tailings shipments in half, from four to two trainloads to the Crescent Junction disposal cell, following uncertainties about future funding levels.

For those who are searching for a bright spot moving forward, Acting Moab UMTRA Federal Project Director John Sattler suggested that they might find it in Trump’s “skinny budget.”

“If you look at the number for the Department of Energy, and specifically, for the Office of Environmental Management, it was actually a little bit higher than the 2017 budget request,” Sattler told the Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee on Thursday, April 27. “So if you’re a glass-half-full type of person, you may take that as possible.”

Sattler’s remarks came in response to a statement from steering committee member Joette Langianese, who said she thinks it’s “probably” safe to say that all federal agencies face some funding cuts in the coming fiscal year.

“I guess for us, that’s a big concern: We want to make sure that this project doesn’t get hit,” Langianese said.

Grand County Council vice chair Mary McGann estimated that the project needs about $44 million annually to reach a completion date of 2024, yet she noted that funding levels for the current fiscal year are set at about $34 million.

In Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison’s eyes, all that local stakeholders can do is suggest to DOE officials “in a nice way” that the project needs to be funded adequately.

By the time it’s completed, the project’s final price tag could reach about $1 billion, and Sakrison asked audience members to imagine how much those costs could increase if the project runs years beyond a previously projected cleanup date of 2019.

“This thing is so close to being done … To drag this thing out to 2035 – it’s insane,” Sakrison said.

Langianese questioned earlier how Sattler and his office can assure local stakeholders that the agency will guarantee enough funding to the Moab project.

“I guess the concern for me is the fact that Congress appropriates a certain amount of money for the Department of Energy, and then it gets into the Department of Energy and the money gets spread out to all these other projects,” she said.

Sattler said his office doesn’t specifically request funding, but instead provides budget data to the DOE’s offices in Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., based on various cleanup scenarios, such as the number of tailings shipments per week. Ultimately, he said, those two offices work with the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to put a budget request together.

But representatives from the U.S. House and Senate have it in their power to allocate money to specific sites, he said: “Congress can, if they choose, say they want X number of dollars for a particular project or a particular program.”

If the project is able to resume more shipments per week, Sattler said he would like to see a sustained increase over the long term – a schedule that congressional representatives who control federal purse strings would likely determine.

“That’s not just a DOE situation,” he said. “That’s congressional funding activity, because we’re not funded for a particular time.”

Grand County UMTRA Liaison Lee Shenton noted that the Office of Environmental Management’s priorities haven’t always lined up with those of the Moab UMTRA Project’s local boosters.

According to Shenton, when then-DOE cleanup chief David Huizenga visited Moab in 2012, he said the office was going to start focusing more of its resources on projects that represent a greater risk to the public, such as the Hanford Site in Washington state.

“It’s hard to argue with that,” Shenton said. “However, on our side, we’ve got 20-some million people downstream that use water out of the (Colorado River) and feel threatened. It’s a tough situation, especially when all of the agencies, except for the Department of Defense, are facing budget cuts.”

Langianese said she believes that the frustration she and others feel stems from the inability to date to showcase the cleanup work at the Moab UMTRA Project.

“Here was an opportunity for this project to show what a great project it was, and how successful it was, and how the community rallied around it and we got it done,” she said. “… So it gets really frustrating to see money allocated to projects that you guys (in the DOE) screwed up … There were some mistakes made up there.”

McGann shared Langianese’s sense of exasperation.

“We could be done – that’s the frustrating (thing),” she said. “We could see the end of it, and then all that money could go to those projects that are going to last years and years and years.”

Hiring freeze lifted; workforce reductions not expected

At least one key uncertainty about the project’s future has been resolved since the president’s inauguration: Sattler announced that the federal hiring freeze that Trump imposed at the start of his administration has been lifted.

Just over one year to the day after the 31 Moab UMTRA employees were laid off, Sattler said he is not aware of any plans for further workforce reductions at the Moab or Crescent Junction sites.

“I certainly haven’t heard anything along those lines, for either the contractor or the federal (department),” he said.

However, the project’s team is down by two key people: former Moab UMTRA Federal Project Director Don Metzler and Justin Peach, the project’s deputy director, who briefly served as acting director before Sattler assumed that role.

“Those positions haven’t gone away – they’re just vacant right now,” Sattler said.

According to Sattler, Metzler retired after a career of nearly three decades with the department, while Peach recently announced that he is leaving the agency to work for the U.S. Navy.

“There’s a lot of stability in this project, and we’re hoping the fact that we have some history with the project that we will continue to maintain that stability,” Sattler said. “So it’s not a complete shakeup; not a complete changing of the guard, so to speak.”

Sattler will remain acting project director as the DOE searches for a “permanent” replacement – a complicated process that could take months to complete due to what he called “bureaucratic paperwork” and cumbersome hiring rules.

“Unfortunately, that process just takes some time to work through,” he said.

“If you’re going to press me on it … I’ll tell you that I really don’t know the number,” he added. “But my expectation is, we’re talking (about) a matter of months – not years.”

In the meantime, he said, the office may be looking at the possibility of bringing in employees from other DOE sites to offer some additional support.

As of mid-April, the project was continuing to ship tailings from the Moab site to the Crescent Junction disposal cell at the reduced rate of two trainloads per week.

Meanwhile, in Crescent Junction, a portion of the disposal cell’s third phase was excavated last spring, and the excavation of a second portion of that phase began in late March. Crews are currently more than three-quarters of the way through that excavation work, and Sattler said they should be finished some time within the next week or two.

“They’re actually a little bit ahead of schedule, too,” he said.

President’s spending wish list for 2017-2018 includes more funds for environmental management office