DOE: UMTRA project making headway despite budget cuts, summer flooding

Progress at the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) cleanup project north of Moab continues despite layoffs and flooding at the site earlier this summer. Cuts in federal funding forced contractors to lay off more than 150 employees in July.

In 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy received $108 million in federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding, allowing contractors to hire almost 200 workers to help accelerate the relocation of about 16 million tons of toxic waste from the former Atlas Uranium mill site to a permanent disposal site near Crescent Junction. Additional stimulus funding is not available and the project is now operating on a budget of about $31 million annually, necessitating the staff cuts.

“We’re still moving 5,000 tons of tailings a day, five days a week,” said Don Metzler, Moab federal project director for the DOE. “It’s about half of what we were able to do with the extra staff, but it’s the best we can do with the available funds.”

Although work at the project site has slowed, Metzler said the DOE still hopes to move about 4.7 million tons of material by the end of the year, making the project 30 percent complete.

“We’re hoping we still may get more funding in the future to keep going at the capacity we created,” Metzler said, adding that the project team is still putting safety as the highest priority and keeping enough employees to ensure safe and appropriate working conditions.

“We are still trying to be good stewards with the taxpayers’ money and find the right balance between funding, workers, and safety to keep the project running successfully,” he said.

Flooding from high water levels in the Colorado River posed another setback at the site this summer. In July and August, many members of the Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee expressed concerns about whether the flooding would lead to contamination, according to UMTRA Liaison Lee Shenton.

He said the committee had three initial concerns: whether high water had washed contaminants into the river; whether a well field near the site was previously remediated; and whether fish populations in the Colorado River were negatively affected.

Shenton said that until recently water levels had remained too high to perform tests to determine if contaminants were washed downstream. Once the levels receded, project staff performed water sampling for analysis upstream and downstream of the project site. Shenton said the tests showed no significant difference between contamination levels upstream and downstream.

“High waters are least likely to cause contaminants to leave the site because the water is pushing inland rather than receding into the river,” Shenton said.

As for issues concerning the well site, Shenton said committee members worried that contaminants had sloughed into the wells and into the soil. He said soil tests in the well fields found no evidence of contamination. That is due to a terrace of three berms between the pile and well field, Shenton said.

“The water did reach the toe of the pile, but the berms in place were made with uncontaminated soil, and the water never came into contact with the tailings,” Shenton said.

Fish populations in the river also were unaffected by the flooding, Shenton said. The U.S. Division of Wildlife Resources tested standing ponds created as water began moving away from the site, according to Shenton. DWR officials found nine species of fish in those ponds but testing showed no adverse affects on endangered fish species, he said.

“There was substantial damage to the revegetation efforts that had begun in the well fields,” said Shenton. “But all in all, no test results suggested an adverse impact from the flood event.”

One issue remained for the steering committee, which was discussed at the group’s Aug. 23 meeting. The committee voted unanimously to request testing of the wells at the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve to check for impacts to subsurface water supplies. There are four well clusters on the wetlands property, with 10 wells each. Sampling of the Matheson Preserve wells is routinely conducted every three to five years, according to Shenton, and the last round of sampling was taken in April 2010. However, the steering committee felt the flooding was exceptional and wanted assurance that no contamination had occurred, he said. Committee members brought the issue to the Grand County Council on Sept. 6, asking the council to approve a letter urging the DOE to begin the water sampling.

“Unfortunately, the project team no longer has the funding flexibility they’ve had in the last two years, so requests like this are harder to accommodate,” Shenton told the county council. “Roughly, if all wells were able to be sampled [to the same level of analysis as last year], the total cost would be around $10,000. The Department of Environmental Quality also stated that even if there were tailings contamination, the risk to the public is extremely low… therefore, even if subsurface levels were found, it would not be advisable to do remediation.”

County council member Audrey Graham, who is also a co-chairwoman of the steering committee with council member Pat Holyoak, acknowledged that the committee did not have all of the scientific data and cost analysis for the action when the vote to request water sampling was made. Graham suggested postponing the county council vote until committee members could review this new information.

“We will let them know that we are also leaning toward the conservative on this issue because of the funding,” said Holyoak.

Council members unanimously voted to postpone a decision on the matter until further information could be distributed to the committee.

Additional information about the tailings cleanup project is available by contacting the Grand County UMTRA liaison:

Lee Shenton

[email protected]

259-1795 (Grand County Office)

719-2811 (Moab UMTRA Site)

ByBy Charli Engelhorn

staff writer