Committee members raise concerns about scaling back uranium tailings cleanup effort
by Charli Engelhorn
staff writer
Apr 26, 2012 | 948 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Concerns about the recent announcement that operations at the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action project site along the Colorado River north of town would be reduced to nine months per year stirred a lively discussion during Tuesday’s Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee Meeting. Representatives from Idaho Falls-based Portage Inc., the new contractor for the federal project, addressed those concerns during the meeting.

Portage Inc., the company replacing EnergySolutions as the managing contractor for the UMTRA clean-up project, officially takes over the contract at midnight on April 29. The contract awarded to Portage was for $121.2 million to relocate approximately 650,000 tons of tailings a year to the permanent holding facility near Crescent Junction. Previously, workers were relocating approximately 1 million tons of tailings each year under the contract with EnergySolutions and the operation was active year-round.

“The tailings number was a DOE [Department of Energy] requirement, and most of that is driven by funding levels,” said Jeff Biagini, project manager for Portage Inc. “In our proposal, we talked about how if we just used the existing funding from the DOE for the project, we could certainly do 1 million tons a year and keep everyone working. However, at this point, the contract stipulates 650,000 tons a year, and the funding is tailored to that amount.”

Biagini said if the DOE decides to fund the extra 350,000 tons of tailings per year, he and his associates would love to see that happen in order to stabilize the project.

Moab resident Joette Langianese questioned the motives behind decreasing the amount of tailings relocated annually.

Langianese, a former member of the Grand County Council and a founding member of the steering committee, expressed great concern over the scaling back of work at the site and said if she had known this was coming in the future, she would not have supported the project.

“This is exactly what the DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] was worried about when this project started... They were worried if there was not enough money put up to get this moved, we would be here with a construction site at the gateway to the community on the river that is open, exposed,” Langianese said. “As a citizen, I am very concerned about that. ...From a DOE perspective, this is unacceptable.”

Lee Shenton, Grand County liaison for the project, said it appears the DOE’s “priorities have changed.”

“I don’t pretend to understand the inner workings of the DOE yet, but I guess the priorities have changed in the headquarters of environmental management in the DOE from complete the small sites quickly to reduce the footprints... to take care of the most significant risks first,” Shenton said. “The new head of the environmental management branch... has a long and distinguished career of cleaning up big time, heavy duty nuclear contamination sites. ...But this is probably grade C information at best.”

Council member and steering committee co-chair Pat Holyoak echoed some of Langianese’s concerns about the fears in the community when the UMTRA project was first brought to the table.

“Our big fear was that they would take the top off and walk off... They [DOE] made this big show in the beginning. I just want to know if that is going to happen or if you think they’ll finish it at some point,” Holyoak said. “This could have been a poster child project for the DOE. It’s in a very pristine area that people come to from all over the world. They threw their chips in the basket with us and suddenly they don’t want to play anymore. I think there is something we need to do about that.”

In response to issue, the Grand County Council submitted a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu requesting an extra $5 to $8 million a year for the project. Council members addressed not only their concerns surrounding leaving the tailings pile open during the off months, but also the possible negative effects on the workforce.

Biagini has said that Portage would attempt to place as many employees with Portage’s three subcontracting companies during the winter shutdown months. But realistically, half of the employees would be laid off for those months, he said. Local officials worry that if that happens, trained and capable staff will leave the project to find other work, forcing Portage to spend resources hiring and training new employees.

On Wednesday, April 25, U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah also sent a letter to Chu questioning the motives behind the funding decisions at the DOE.

“The scope of work outlined in the contract does not come close to the level of cleanup required to complete the project on time. In fact, under the terms of this contract, work would not be completed for another seventeen years,” Matheson said. “The Administration’s decision to use a seasonal work schedule is not an efficient way to manage taxpayer dollars ...An important characteristic of the Moab project is that there is an end in sight, and I believe an aggressive effort to complete the removal will be a more fiscally prudent use of taxpayer funds.”

Steering committee members said they will continue to lobby Congress and the DOE and work with the parties involved, including Union Pacific railroad operators, to acquire more funding for the project.


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