DOE reveals details of plan to relocate Atlas tailings pile

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After hearing assurances from Sen. Robert Bennett that he will continue his efforts to gain funding to speed the process, Department of Energy Project Manager Don Metzler on Tuesday revealed to the Moab Tailings Project steering committee details of the plan to relocate 16 million tons of radioactive uranium mill tailings from the old Atlas mill site.

According to Metzler, contractor EnergySolutions will haul the tailings to a disposal site near Crescent Junction by railroad. The plan is based on the current funding schedule that will complete removal by 2028, Metzler said.

Amendments to the Defense Authorization Act, sponsored by Bennett and Rep. Jim Matheson, attempt to accelerate completion to 2019. If they become law, the rate of removal could be doubled.

Metzler assured the group that the cleanup plan can accommodate the accellerated rate, but said trucking some of the tailings might be required to meet the 2019 deadline. “If we do get more money we might think of doing part of it by truck,” Metzler said. Or, he added, another section of railroad track might be built to handle the extra load.

Metzler, along with Garth Stowe, operations manager for contractor EnergySolutions, explained how huge “dirty” trucks will haul 40-ton containers filled with tailings to a structure located between the tailings pile and Potash Road where they will be covered by lids.

Once the containers are sealed and a radiological survey verifies they have no radioactive material on the outside, the containers will be hauled by “clean” trucks up to the railroad line to be placed on rail cars for transportation to the disposal pit near Crescent Junction.

Stowe said the dirty trucks will never travel to the clean side of the lidding structure, and the clean trucks will never be on the dirty side.

At Crescent Junction the process will be reversed, except the tailings will be dumped out of end gates rather than from the top to minimize dust and prevent contamination to the outside of the containers. A knife-edge seal “assures there will be no dribble of materials out of the end gates during transit,” Metzler said.

Each of the six clean trucks will make 22 or 23 loops per day, on a 21.2-minute cycle, between the lidding structure and the rail line, Metzler said. In all, 136 containers will be transported daily on a four-day per week schedule.

Metzler stressed safety as the main reason for choosing to transfer the tailings by rail, rather than by truck on U.S. 191. “We can’t have a fatality, because that would counter the whole rationale for moving the tailings,” he said.

An overpass will be built across the Potash Road so haul trucks will never encounter highway traffic.

Joette Langianese, who represents the Grand County Council on the steering committee, worried about the visual impact of the lidding structure and other buildings near Potash Road. Metzler said there are only 200 acres to work with and the haul trucks cannot cross Moab Wash.

Langianese expressed concern about passersby who may want to stop along the highway or state Route 279 and watch the cleanup in process.

“This is one reason for an overpass,” Metzler said.

“We’ll need to accommodate roadside viewing with a vantage point that meets UDOT standards,” Stowe said.

The amendment accelerating the process is likely to become law, according to Alyson Heyrend, communications director for Matheson. “Matheson’s amendment requires DOE to complete the project by 2019,” she said.

Bennett’s amendment “requires the Secretary of Energy to to put forward a plan to do just that,” Bennett said.

The amendments have passed both the Senate and the House, and are now in conference committee. Heyrend is confident that a workable blending of the two will come out of conference as part of the Defense Authorization Act, which, she said, “is one of the few annual bills that doesn’t get vetoed.”

“There’s no problem in getting [the tailings] moved in 10 to 12 years, if the money’s there,” Bennett said prior to Tuesday’s meeting. “As a result of today I understand my responsibility more clearly,” Bennett said. “It is to keep the money coming.”

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ByBy Craig Bigler, contributing writer