Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee member Joette Langianese (second from left, front) is pictured with Senior Adviser for Field Operations Kenneth G. Picha (left), Grand County Council chair Mary McGann, Moab City Council member Tawny Knuteson-Boyd, Office of Environmental Management Senior Adviser Roger A. Jarrell II, Site Liaison Howard Huie (back row, left) and Strategic Communication Specialist Stephan Tetreault. [Photo courtesy of Tawny Knuteson-Boyd]

Lobbying efforts by local elected officials have paid off for Moab’s Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project, which was awarded $45 million in the federal appropriations bill for fiscal year 2019.

“We asked for $45 million and that’s what we got,” Grand County council chair Mary McGann said. “It’s very good news.”

The purpose of the project is to relocate mill tailings and other contaminated materials left by the Atlas uranium-ore processing facility, primarily at a site just north of Moab between U.S. Highway 191 and the Colorado River, to an engineered disposal cell constructed near Crescent Junction, as well as remediation of groundwater at the site.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Environmental Management in Grand Junction, Colorado, has primary responsibility for managing the project.

According to a recent update, the Moab project is currently shipping two trains a week, each carrying 144 containers, for a total of about 9,200 tons per week. To date, the project has shipped more than 9 million tons of tailings, or 57 percent of the total. The project is currently estimated to be completed in 2034, according to the update.

The Moab UMTRA Project has seen ups and downs in funding, and corresponding shifts in project time lines and the completion date, since the DOE first took over the site in 2001.

In an interview with the Moab Sun News, McGann recounted her experience coming on to the Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee in early 2016 just as the announcement came that a significant number of UMTRA jobs were being cut. McGann said she felt distress on behalf of the workers, and also frustration that the project would be slowed considerably.

McGann said she contacted Utah State Sen. David Hinkins to see about the Utah Legislature providing UMTRA funding. She said she was told the state was not likely to provide money, but might support a resolution. Hinkins, along with Utah State Rep. Christine Watkins, sponsored the resolution, which Gov. Gary Herbert eventually signed into law.

McGann said that in 2017, she, along with Moab City Council member Rani Derasary and Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee member Joette Langianese, approached the DOE in Washington, D.C., for a budget increase, which resulted in a $3 million one-time budget addition called a “plus-up.”

McGann and Langianese returned to Washington, D.C., in March of this year, this time with Moab City Council member Tawny Knuteson-Boyd, to lobby for $10 million in funding to add to the $35 million received for fiscal year 2018. McGann said they met with 16 Congress members, an effort that required an enormous amount of time and energy to coordinate.

“We would get up and hit the pavement before nine,” McGann said. “We would run from one office to another, literally. It was exciting, but a lot of legwork.”

They did not get their request, but did get an additional $2.9 million, and an assurance from Utah Reps. Chris Stewart, Mia Love and John Curtis that funding for 2019 would be between $38 and $42 million.

In addition, McGann said, she contacted DOE Secretary Rick Perry as well officials in the “downstream states” of Arizona, Nevada and California, to gain their support for increased funding.

“There were hours and hours of behind the scenes work to support this,” McGann said.

McGann said that when Rep. Curtis “got it past the House,” it was at $42 million, but the funding bill came out of the Senate and was signed by President Donald Trump at $45 million.

McGann emphasized the importance of ongoing lobbying efforts, as funding is decided on a year-by-year basis.

“We will be going back next session to thank them, show them how much we’ve accomplished with the funding, and to make the case that we need the funding to be there year after year,” she said, adding that her involvement is dependent on the outcome of her current re-election bid. “If I’m re-elected, I’ll definitely be going back. If not, I’ll encourage the person who takes my place to continue this effort.”

Knuteson-Boyd concurred with McGann on the importance of continuing the lobbying work, and said the project is important because of “the environmental and health impacts on the people that live here and downriver.”

She also spoke about her personal connection to the Moab UMTRA Project.

“My husband’s uncle was Charlie Steen,” Knuteson-Boyd said.

Steen found a large uranium deposit near Moab that was processed at the Atlas Mill.

“That was the beginning of the legacy,” she said. “Hopefully, we can play a part in cleaning it up.”

Grand County employs Russ von Koch as its UMTRA liaison; he facilitates communication between the local community and the DOE about the remediation work at the site.

Von Koch said that UMTRA staff is now evaluating how to use the 2019 funds; the 2019 fiscal year began on Oct. 1. He said a discussion of the budget increase is on the agenda for the Steering Committee’s Oct. 23 meeting.

“They’ll have a lot of things to work through to decide how they’ll use this money,” said von Koch, adding that right now the tailings removal is continuing at its pace of two trains per week.

“They have to work with others to coordinate.”

He added that it’s hard to estimate what the finish date will be, due to the uncertain nature of federal funding.

“Each year, that’s all you ever know,” von Koch said. “The actual budget for federal agencies is not known until the full appropriations process works its way through Congress. It depends on what Congress is able to do … It’s difficult because agencies don’t always know exactly what they’ll have, and it results in additional planning throughout the year to work on the budget.”

McGann touts local lobbying efforts as key to increased funding levels

We asked for $45 million and that’s what we got. It’s very good news.