Shipments of contaminated tailings from the mill site just north of Moab to a disposal site near Crescent Junction will resume Thursday, March 7.
Twenty-seven workers were furloughed as part of the planned shutdown this winter. Thirty-four people spent the winter installing permanent liners in the containers used to transport tailings. Another 40 were retained during the curtailment to continue required activities, including project management, environmental monitoring, security and radiation protection, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Energy.
“We are pleased to have 100 percent of the furloughed workers returning to the project,” said project manager Jeff Biagini of Portage Inc., the company performing the removal.
He noted the project will save money because the returning workers won’t have to be trained.
“That’s the biggest benefit of having them come back,” said Lee Shenton, Grand County UMTRA liaison. “Everyone already knows the job.”
Biagini said it was fortunate to have work available for those who installed the permanent liners in railroad cars. The last of 331 container cars was fitted with a liner on Tuesday, Feb. 26, Biagini told members of the Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee during their meeting in the Grand County Council chambers the same day.
The permanent liners replace those previously used for only a single trip from the Moab site to the area near Crescent Junction, where the tailings are being deposited.
Biagini said the liners will save money for the project, estimating they will pay for themselves in about five years – before the project ends. They can be used for remediation projects elsewhere after that, he said.
“That liner work was not charity,” Shenton added. “That was a business deal.”
Meanwhile, if Congress fails to act and sequestration goes into effect Friday, March 1, the required budget cuts will not affect the removal of contaminated soil at the former Atlas uranium mill, Biagini said.
Sequestration is a series of automatic budget cuts to government agencies, and is set to begin unless Congress comes up with a last-minute deal. The cuts would be spread half and half among the nation’s defense budget and domestic spending.
Sequestration would probably cause budget cuts of 5 percent to 6 percent for the U.S. Department of Energy, with the same amount of funding cuts filtering down to the project, he said.
However, Biagini said the goal is to maintain the current tailings shipping schedule and not furlough any employees.
The potential funding cuts, should sequestration occur, could be offset by delaying some work at the Crescent Junction site, he said. Biagini said $2.5 million has been earmarked this year to place a final cover of shale and rock on the cell containing tailings shipped there so far.
That work could be put off until 2014 to make up the funding shortfall, he said. Biagini added there would be little chance of contaminated soil escaping before the cell was capped next year.
“That’s certainly not a major issue,” he said.
Two representatives from the office of U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) attended the steering committee meetings. The congressman’s district director, Wade Garrett, said Chaffetz puts a high priority on continued funding for tailings removal and favors enough funding for year-round work.
“Let’s get it done as soon as possible, get it capped and be done with it,” Garrett said.
Ian Allen, constituent affairs representative for Chaffetz, said such things as funding a small county road don’t rank high on congressional priority lists. “But this [UMTRA] is a federal project” with great importance, he said.
Chaffetz will hold a town hall meeting in Moab on Wednesday, March 27. He will tour the Atlas site during his visit.