County officials appeal to state, federal officials to find more funding for UMTRA project
by Charli Engelhorn
staff writer
Jul 12, 2012 | 2411 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Job losses and a delayed timeline for cleanup at the former Atlas Uranium mill project site north of Moab were the main topics of discussion at Tuesday’s Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee meeting. Among the Grand County stakeholders, Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison, members of Portage Inc. – the contractor that now holds the contract for the cleanup – legislators, and officials from the offices of Sen. Orrin Hatch, Sen. Mike Lee, and Rep. Jim Matheson attended the meeting either in person or by phone to discuss how to secure more funding and speed up work at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action project.

“We have spoken with the [DOE], and they are looking to try to find additional money from some other project. This is obviously a political decision, but we need some help,” Sakrison told Ron Dean of Hatch’s office. “To have a layoff during this time could be devastating to our economy.”

Earlier this year, Portage, Inc. announced a three-month shutdown of cleanup work at the UMTRA project during December, January and February. Portage officials said the company is limited to removing 65,000 tons of tailings each year according to their federal contract and determined a nine-month work schedule as the most efficient for the funding available.

Sakrison and other members of the steering committee appealed to the legislators and state representatives for help in requesting an additional $5 million in annual funding from the federal offices of the DOE.

“This is no fault of Portage. They are just fulfilling their contract,” said Grand County Council member Audrey Graham. “I’ve spent a ton of time on the phone figuring out how to best politically go about this and how to boost the funding up. It looks like the 2013 budget is set, but we need to look at 2014.”

The loss of trained employees during the lay-off period is a major concern, according to Sakrison. He said many people he knows who work at the site will look for new jobs during those three months and most likely will not come back to work at the UMTRA project in March.

Katie Hanway, workforce development specialist for the Department of Workforce Services, said that as of this week, the Uintah Basin has 223 jobs listed – many involving similar duties or skill requirements as those at the UMTRA project. In contrast, Moab showed only 69 job listings, and none of them involved the same type of work as the project, she said. Hanway said it is likely that many employees would apply for the Uintah Basin jobs and not return to Moab when UMTRA cleanup efforts resume.

Dean, who joined the meeting by phone, agreed that having to retrain an entire workforce after the shutdown could cause some inefficiency in work and slow the process of the project while new employees are being trained. He suggested the county send a memo to Hatch outlining the specifics of the economic and community benefits of keeping a trained workforce employed and the expenses and impact to the local economy that will result from losing those workers.

Stakeholders also voiced concerns about the timeframe for the cleanup completion, which the committee learned in a letter from David Huizenga, senior advisor for environmental management for the DOE, would be pushed back six more years to 2025. A measure pushed through Congress by Matheson several years ago required that the project be completed by 2019.

Both Sakrison and council member Pat Holyoak argued that allowing the cleanup to be extended is like “taking the top off and walking off.”

“I’ve said all along, this project could be a poster child for the DOE. The location is highly visible to the community and the visitors to the area, including those from foreign countries,” Holyoak said. “For [public relations] sake, we could use this project and say that we are a country that takes care of their waste in a responsible manner.”

To date, 5.3 million tons of tailings have been moved from the project site, according to UMTRA liaison, Lee Shenton. That number is approximately one-third of the 16 million tons of contaminated waste that must be relocated to a permanent disposal site located about 30 miles north of Moab near Crescent Junction. Shenton said removal rates will slow as the project’s crews dig deeper into the pile because of the nature of the equipment and type of material buried at the site. Shenton also said that the discussions with the state officials about the site issues were “a good thing” for the county.

“Sen. Lee’s office has actually helped us quite a bit about what logic would be persuasive in order to receive more funding… avoiding wasting taxpayers’ money, job retention, and preventing safety complications by having a turnover of the crew,” Shenton said. “Seems like the governor and senators are receptive to redirecting funds, so I remain cautiously optimistic.”

Editor's Note: This version corrects the number of jobs now open in Moab based on figures provided by Utah Department of Workforce Services Workforce Development Specialist Katie Hanway.

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