Russell McCallister is expected to begin work full-time next month as the Moab UMTRA Project’s new director. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Russell McCallister is coming to town just in time to celebrate the latest milestone at the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project site.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) new federal project director is officially scheduled to begin work on Feb. 19, assuming that Congress reaches a longer-term deal to keep the federal government running, after last weekend’s short-lived government shutdown. That’s right around the time that McCallister anticipates the project’s team will have shipped the 9-millionth ton of uranium mill tailings to a long-term disposal cell near Crescent Junction, about 30 miles north of Moab.

He’ll be supervising the ongoing cleanup of the former Atlas Mill site along the banks of the Colorado River – 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.

The Denver-area native will be headquartered at the DOE’s office in Grand Junction, Colorado, but like his most recent full-time predecessor Don Metzler, he plans to work closely with the project team in Moab.

“My intent is to spend as much time as possible on the site,” he told the Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee during its quarterly meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 23.

McCallister began his career as a research chemist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He was later involved in the deactivation, decommissioning and demolition of nuclear facilities at the former Rocky Flats Site in Colorado for a decade. Once that project was complete, he went off to work for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico, where he led the Office of Environmental Management’s work to handle “transuranic waste” from facilities across the country. Most recently, he served with the office’s Portsmouth/Paducah Project in Ohio and Kentucky for 11 years.

County delegation lobbies for more project funding

The current federal fiscal year began on Oct. 1, 2017, and since that time, the UMTRA team has shipped about 140,000 tons to the disposal cell. That brings the total number of shipments to date to 8.96 million tons, or an estimated 56 percent of the tailings that were once buried under the Atlas Mill pile.

Under the contract for the previous fiscal year, crews were supposed to remove at least 480,000 tons in 2017, although they ultimately exceeded that directive and moved about 493,000 tons, according to Grand County UMTRA Liaison Lee Shenton.

Speaking just one day after the three-day government shutdown ended, McCallister said he still doesn’t know how much money the Moab project will receive this fiscal year.

The Moab UMTRA Project is one of six “small non-defense” projects that the DOE’s Office of Environmental Management administers, but it receives roughly half of the $72 million allocated for them, so it is not being ignored, Shenton said. That’s still minimal compared to the $1.5 billion used annually to clean up the Hanford Site in Washington state, the largest of the EM sites. 

“(There) very definitely is an allocation decision to be made at the DOE level,” Shenton said earlier this month. “They have over a $6 billion budget, and Moab is getting $35 million of that, but (there are) places that have really, really significant contamination and hazard to the public – specifically Hanford – it’s getting over $1.5 billion a year.”

Grand County Council chair Mary McGann is leading a delegation of local residents who are lobbying for $45 million annually, with the hope that the pace of cleanup work will pick up, and the project can be completed by 2024 – at least a decade ahead of the current schedule.

By Shenton’s estimates, an accelerated cleanup timeline could cut the project’s total costs by about $250 million.

“It would end up saving the DOE quite a bit of money,” McGann said.

The project received an additional $3 million last year, which was used to buy new equipment, including a $650,000 haul truck, a dozer and reach stackers that move containers of uranium mill tailings.

“I can’t believe how much money those things are, but we needed those,” McCallister said. “The equipment is starting to wear out. The site does a very good job of maintaining it … but these things run constantly; very seldom are they down, so it does (cause) wear and tear.”

Having said that, McCallister said he’s happy to hear that county officials are pushing for more project funding.

“I’m all in favor of that,” he said. “I think that this is a project that’s prime for additional funding to increase movement of the material, and it’s not technically complex. We just need to hire more people and have (people consistently) there to do the job.”

Project manager hears proposal for Arches parking hub

At current shipment rates, the overall project site isn’t expected to be fully cleaned up until 2034 at the earliest. But Moab developer Michael Liss is optimistic that a previously remediated 35-acre section near the eastern edge of the project site can be transformed into a parking area that eases traffic congestion at nearby Arches National Park.

He envisions that a 2,000-car-capacity parking lot could take shape within two years, provided that the DOE is willing to declare the land surplus property, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission certifies that the site has been remediated.

“It’s all based on you guys here,” Liss said. “We have an amazing opportunity in front of us.”

Liss and others came forward with the idea after Arches announced last year that it’s proposing to adopt a reservation-based entrance system during peak visitation periods. If the park adopts the reservation system, Liss said he fears that people who are on loosely planned road trips might not make specific plans to visit Moab.

“A lot of the spontaneous tourism would be hammered,” he said.

According to Liss, the park service itself explored the possibility of a shuttle system in 2012 that included a stop at the UMTRA site, and he noted that the community vision for the land has identified similar uses for the property.

“There have been these ideas about transportation alternatives, but none were moved forward on,” he said.

Once a parking lot is in place, he said, the community could experiment with other transportation ideas, such as a shuttle system.

As Liss envisions it, another portion of the 35-acre area could be used to house a visitor center and expedition center, where tour operators and outfitters rent booths where visitors could learn about other activities beyond Arches.

“We don’t have to worry and wait until the whole site is (remediated),” he said. “We can work with part of the site … right now.”

McCallister said that Liss’ plan for the 35 acres is “doable.” But can it be done within his preferred time frame?

“Two years – I think – no way,” McCallister said.

“It comes down to time, and bureaucracy moves at a snail’s pace,” McCallister said at another point during the Jan. 23 meeting. “I know at Rocky Flats, it took forever for us to get to the point where the public was comfortable, the liability issues were resolved (and the National Environmental Policy Act and) all these other things you need to look at (were reviewed).”

Wendee Ryan, the project’s contracted public affairs manager, called Liss’ timeline “pretty optimistic.”

She noted that for the past year, the Museum of Moab has been seeking a minor easement through the UMTRA site in order to access a privately owned parcel that would be used for parking at its future home on North U.S. Highway 191.

“That apparently kicks you into a whole new (National Environmental Policy Act) space, to allow parking or pavement on it,” Ryan said. “Just for this 75-foot easement along the eastern property boundary – that already exists. There’s an easement that’s been recorded for years.”

Liss envisions that the 35-acre site he’s identified could eventually be transferred to Grand County or the U.S. Interior Department. But Ryan said that process can be cumbersome, noting that a federal agency like the park service cannot readily own additional property without congressional authorization.

“That takes an act of Congress, literally, to make that happen,” she said.

Liss’ vision for the property is even more ambitious than past plans for a trail system through remediated portions of the site. That system was just weeks away from opening in 2012 when an elderly nun broke into a DOE site in Tennessee during a protest, leading the agency to reverse course as part of a much broader clampdown on public access.

“What do you do when you’re a security site and you see people coming onto areas that are authorized as shoot to kill?” McCallister asked. “We get people wandering on our sites now quite frequently, and we’re trying to prevent that from happening.”

Most people who trespass on DOE sites have no ill intent, he said.

“There’s nothing to steal (at the Moab UMTRA site), except there are liability issues,” he said. “And it may not be directly cause and effect, but (if) people complained, ‘You know, I got cancer 20 years ago. I rode a bike in Moab one time and I went across the tailings pile’ … they’ll swear to anybody that that’s where it came from, so we need to be careful about how we open up areas.”

It’s important to look at new ideas for the site, McCallister said, while realizing that it’s a struggle to bring them to fruition.

“We just need to realize that there’s a bunch of hurdles that we have to overcome,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

Liss pitches proposal for Arches parking hub at DOE site; County seeks extra funding

I think that this is a project that’s prime for additional funding to increase movement of the material, and it’s not technically complex. We just need to hire more people and have (people consistently) there to do the job.