U.S. Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management Program Analyst Ed Skintik gestured toward the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project site on Wednesday, July 26. The project's team agreed this week to restore a general summary about its employees' exposure to radiation in a draft annual statement of compliance to Grand County. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

If you want to keep track of general information about employees’ exposure to radiation at the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project site, you’ll soon have access to the latest statement from the project’s team.

Project officials agreed this week to restore a related summary that they previously removed from a draft of an annual statement of compliance to Grand County, raising concerns among the county’s project liaison and others.

To this day, none of the project’s employees have ever exceeded the exposure limits that have been set, according to Moab UMTRA technical assistance contract program manager Joe Ritchey. As crews move forward with their cleanup efforts, Ritchey said the project team’s leaders are continuing to reduce those exposure limits each year.

“So that commitment (of) the project to protect its employees is as strong as ever, I would say,” he said during the Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee’s meeting on Tuesday, July 25.

As of July 1, the project’s team included 85 employees who work for remedial action contractor Portage, Inc., and 26 who work for technical assistance contractor S&K Logistics Services, LLC. The project also includes a handful of employees from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management.

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. In June alone, contractors shipped 40,700 tons of tailings to the Crescent Junction disposal cell, for a total of more than 8.7 million tons since shipments began in 2009.

Grand County UMTRA Liaison Lee Shenton first brought the omission of the employee exposure information to the steering committee’s attention on July 25. He told committee members that a vote to approve the draft statement in its current form would send a specific message to the Grand County Council.

“If this group votes to forward the annual statement as is, then you’re saying that you’re OK with this as is,” Shenton said.

Project officials voluntarily submit the statement each year to show that the project is in compliance with its conditional use permit from Grand County. They focus on four specific issues that county officials ask them to address, and in the past, Shenton said the federal project director has always offered to answer more questions that change from year to year.

This year, he said, the project team initially withheld its discussion of employees’ radiological exposures for the first time since 2007.

“So it got my attention,” Shenton said. “It made me wonder whether health risks to the employees are no longer important. I don’t mean to be flippant about it, but you have to ask that question when the project has addressed that issue eight years in a row, and then leaves it out this year. The understandable question is, ‘Why?’”

The DOE publishes quarterly reports about public exposure to radiation around Moab and Crescent Junction, and Shenton said that the most recent trends are no different than the ones that committee members have been discussing for several years. In all cases, levels of radon, gamma and particulates are far below the project’s guidelines.

Ritchey said that he and others from the project team were under the impression that the county’s resolution does not require them to provide additional information about the monitoring of UMTRA employees.

“The way we looked at it, the resolution was really asking for air and water monitoring reports,” Ritchey said, adding later that he didn’t feel it was necessary to include the statement.

Employee monitoring, he said, is conducted under a separate DOE regulation that’s distinct from the one that governs the release of other information that the agency shares with the county.

“That employee monitoring is not something that we’ve ever really published,” he said. “We don’t publish that report – there’s privacy law issues that are related to that, and that’s why it’s summarized at a very high level.”

Shenton said the main point he would like to make is that a majority of the Moab UMTRA Project’s employees are citizens who are local residents’ friends, family members and neighbors. Based on those close connections, he said it’s important that the public has access to a general statement about those employees.

“I’m not just bringing these things up because it’s my opinion,” he told the Moab Sun News on Wednesday, July 26. “I’m doing what I was hired to do.”

Grand County Council vice chair Mary McGann, who serves as the steering committee’s chair, told project officials that while some of her constituents don’t attend the committee’s meetings, they’re paying attention to the project.

In particular, McGann said she hears from residents who ask her if the project’s employees are in danger.

“This helps answer that … and I wondered why it was removed, because it seems pretty small and an easy thing to have in the report,” McGann said on July 25.

Ritchey, in response, said the project’s team didn’t believe that the county had asked for the statement.

Moab Area Travel Council Executive Director Elaine Gizler said the issue is a sensitive one in the community, especially as the projected cleanup completion date has been pushed back beyond the original date of 2019.

“I think this is a critical element to have in the reports to assure the local community that the employees’ exposure is minimal … whatever you’ve been reporting,” Gizler said. “And if you intended to take it out, I guess, we should have known that prior, but I think it’s something that needs to be continued to be reported.”

Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee member Joette Langianese noted that there’s always a possibility that employee exposure levels could change, and if no relevant information is included in the report, the steering committee wouldn’t know that.

Langianese said she doesn’t question the project’s commitment to the highest standards.

“But that’s just me,” she said. “There’s a lot of other people in the community that would question that and think, ‘They’re up to something; they’ve got this management change; there’s new people involved … If it’s so good, then why wouldn’t you (report it)?’”

Move comes after project team dropped language from draft report to county

I think this is a critical element to have in the reports to assure the local community that the employees’ exposure is minimal.