As funding cuts continue to push back the completion date for the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project (UMTRA), the Grand County Council is unanimously pledging support for a state resolution urging the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to restore “adequate funding” — an estimated $45 million annually — to complete the cleanup work by 2025. The council is also asking state officials downriver in California, Nevada and Arizona to support the resolution, which will be introduced at the Utah Legislature by Sen. David Hinkins (R-Orangeville).
Council member Mary McGann chairs the Moab UMTRA steering committee — a group of local stakeholders — and has spearheaded an effort to find better funding for the project since 35 employees were laid off at the site in April.
“[The resolution] is the beginning to help when a group of us go up to [Washington D.C.] to meet with the Department of Energy to be the squeaky wheel and ask for funding so that instead of finishing the project in 2034 it will be finished in 2024,” McGann said.
In 2008, then-Rep. Jim Matheson and former Sen. Bob Bennett added language to the National Defense Authorization Act requiring that the work to relocate the 16 million tons of Cold War-era uranium waste be completed by 2019. Local officials say that date would have been within reach if Moab UMTRA received adequate funding.
The project is currently slated to receive $34.8 million in federal fiscal year 2017, down from $38.6 million in fiscal year 2016.
“You all understand that funding is somewhat fluid ... Year to year it changes dependent on various priorities by the Department of Energy,” Grand County Technical Inspector Lee Shenton told the council Jan. 17.
The Moab UMTRA project reached a milestone last year, when 8 million tons —50 percent of the tailings — were relocated to the permanent disposal site near Crescent Junction, about 30 miles north of Moab.
During the stimulus funding era when the project received approximately $40 million annually, Moab UMTRA crews shipped more than 200,000 tons of tailings each month to Crescent Junction using 10 trains per week, Shenton said.
Now, because of decreased funding, the project ships approximately 37,000 tons per month using two trains per week.
“If the project continues at its current funding moving the tailings, it is estimated that it will take until 2034 to complete,” the resolution approved by the county council states. “This will cost the taxpayers an estimated $250 million more than if the project were completed by 2025.”
Both McGann and Shenton said remediation below ground at the site must still occur after the actual tailings pile is removed.
Although the 16-million ton estimate includes two feet of below-grade material, Shenton said it is unclear at this point how much material must actually be excavated and removed below the current pile.
“ ... As far as I know, they don’t and can’t know how much additional material they will have to take out from beneath the pile,” Shenton told the council. “They have to get most of the pile gone first.”
The state resolution supported by the council reminds the DOE of it’s “Cold War legacy responsibilities,” and asks the federal government to work “aggressively” in addressing the cleanup at the Moab UMTRA site.
Meeting the challenges of the 21st century, the resolution states, “involves the transport of uranium mill tailings away from their current location near the Colorado River and Arches National Park to a DOE disposal facility in Crescent Junction.”