Matheson, congressional officials urge DOE to maintain funding levels for Atlas cleanup

Rep. Jim Matheson, along with eight other members of Congress, recently sent a letter to Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu last week requesting that DOE maintain current levels of funding for the cleanup of uranium tailings at the old Atlas mill site on the Colorado River north of Moab.

Besides Matheson who represents this area in Congress, five of the nine cosigners represent congressional districts in California. One is from New York, one from Arizona, and one from Nevada.

The letter notes that $108 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was granted to the project in the past year. Those stimulus funds have paid for nearly 60 percent of the removal of two million tons of tailings from the site to date, DOE officials have said and the funds are expected to pay for another 1.2 million tons of material to be removed by Sept. 30, 2011, according to the letter. A total of 16 million tons of material will be relocated during the course of the project, DOE officials have estimated.

“Maintaining a level of funding between $70-90 million in FY12 (beginning Oct. 1, 2011) is critical to ensuring that cleanup is complete by its target deadline of 2019, as required by the FY08 National Defense Authorization Act, and to minimizing the period when the Colorado River and public will be at risk [from contamination],” the letter states.

The stimulus funds have accelerated movement of the tailings by providing for 200 additional jobs in Grand County that will be lost if the higher level of funding is not continued by DOE, the letter states.

The letter reminds Chu that 16 million tons of tailings accumulated in an “unlined, 130 acre impoundment next to the river,” presenting serious threat of heavy metals leaching through the ground to the river.

In addition, the letter notes that the stimulus funds have resulted in the creation of about 200 jobs at the mill tailings cleanup site.

“Without maintaining this level of funding… these new jobs and the expedited progress on cleanup are threatened,” the letter states.

The 200 jobs represent only about 5 percent of total employment in Grand County, according to Mark Knold, Chief Economist at the Utah Department of Workforce Services. Because they are relatively high-paying jobs, their loss would be a blow, but not devastating to the local economy, he said.

“But, it’s a much more magnified situation if you’re the one facing the layoff,” Knold said.

Noting that the jobs that might be lost are relatively high-paying, Knold said the impact would be greater than losing the same number of jobs in tourist services. But the community could “weather the storm,” even while individuals might not fare so well.

Senior Research Economist Pamela Perlich of the University of Utah’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research agreed with Knold’s analysis. She also described the situation from a future economic development point of view.

Aside from safety issues, Perlich said the location of the tailings pile at the entrance to Moab Valley is a “black eye” on the area’s “awesome and beautiful” surroundings.

The sooner the area is cleared of tailings and reclaimed for future use, the sooner “it will add to the long term economic development potential of Moab,” she said.

ByBy Craig Bigler

contributing writer