Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
MOAB — After a more than three-month hiatus, railway containers of radioactive uranium mill tailings will once again travel north from the outskirts of Moab to Crescent Junction, where the rust-colored dirt will be dumped and buried.
The removal of the tailings was temporarily halted in late November after 27 contract employees at the U.S. Department of Energy site were furloughed.
Idaho-based Portage, Inc., is the contractor on the project that announced it would work a nine-month schedule to remove 670,000 tons of the tailings during a shortened work year.
The slowdown, due to lack of federal government funding, was met with disappointment by Moab and Grand County elected officials, who want what's left of the tailings removed as quickly as possible.
Called "The Pile' by many locals, the giant mounds of tailings sit not far from the banks of the Colorado River, which many fear is at critical risk of contamination during flooding. The river is a chief source of municipal and agricultural water for an estimated 30 million people downstream in California and Nevada.
The idled trainloads of tailings were also frustrating for DOE's Moab project director Don Metzler, a stickler for work schedules that embrace efficiency and safety.
"It was a little bit disappointing, but with funding being the way it is across the federal government, including the DOE, it is something we had to do," he said.
Initially, it was feared that 87 of the project's 112 employees would have to be furloughed, but the contractor obtained private loans to acquire permanent liners to be installed in 322 railway containers.
"We did not have the money to keep the train going for three months, but we had enough money to keep the workers on the payroll," he said.
Metzler said the liners were installed in 322 containers, boosting worker safety, reducing the potential for environmental contamination and ultimately adding to the efficiency of the removal operation.
Previously, individual plastic liners had to be put in the train cars for each load, posing risks to the workers. Metzler said the liners would often billow in the wind at the Crescent Junction disposal site and some remnants of the tailngs would cling to the liners.
The permanent liners will now free up those two workers for other aspects of the project, he added.
All 27 workers who were furloughed will return to the site on March 4 and after refresher training, the railway cars will resume daily shipments a few days later hauling 5,000 tons of tailings to the disposal site.
"We're just like everybody else," Metzler said. "We want to haul out as much as we can per day."