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Matheson questions new Moab tailings contract

Published: Tuesday, June 30 2015 6:15 p.m. MDT

Trucks haul in and dump uranium tailings at the new operational Crescent Junction Disposal Site 30 miles north of Moab and a bulldozer spreads out the tailings in the disposal cell.  The tailing are from an old uranium mine at Moab, May 4, 2009. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News) Trucks haul in and dump uranium tailings at the new operational Crescent Junction Disposal Site 30 miles north of Moab and a bulldozer spreads out the tailings in the disposal cell. The tailing are from an old uranium mine at Moab, May 4, 2009. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News)

MOAB — An Idaho Falls firm has won a $121 million contract to continue cleanup of the millions of tons of contaminated mill tailings that sit not far from the Colorado River.

The five-year contract announced by the U.S. Department of Energy will have Portage, Inc. responsible for the removal of 3.1 million tons of tailings. So far, 4.6 million of the original 16 million tons of radioactive waste have been removed from a defunct mill.

Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, questioned the duration and scope of the contract.

"I do not understand why DOE issued a five-year contract instead of contracting for the full eight years," he said. "Even more concerning is the fact that the scope of work outlined in the contract does not appear to be even close to the level of cleanup required to finish the job on time." 

Looking down on the at the old Atlas Mill tailing area in Moab. A ribbon cutting took place for the removal of contaminated uranium tailings from the old mill site. The the tailing are being removed 30 miles north. May 4, 2009. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News) Looking down on the at the old Atlas Mill tailing area in Moab. A ribbon cutting took place for the removal of contaminated uranium tailings from the old mill site. The the tailing are being removed 30 miles north. May 4, 2009. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News)

If Portage meets its five-year contract goal, a total of 7.7 million tons of tailings will be removed, representing just shy of half the original amount left behind when Atlas shut down operations.

The tailings are being transported by rail cars to an engineered disposal site at Crescent Junction 30 miles to the north. The tailings are then capped and buried.

Matheson pushed through legislation accelerating the cleanup of the tailings, with a vongressional deadline of 2019 set.

The fear has been that the tailings will leach into the nearby Colorado River, contaminating drinking water supplies and habitat downstream.

DOE spokesman Bill Taylor said contracts awarded by the federal agency are typically for five years and the contract for Portage is not unusual. Subsequent contracts will be awarded, he added, and the DOE does not intend to leave the tailings half removed.

One truck with a loaded container leaves the loading chute area as another is being loaded with contaminated uranium tailings from the old Atlas Mill site in Moab. The the tailing are being removed 30 miles north. May 4, 2009. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News) One truck with a loaded container leaves the loading chute area as another is being loaded with contaminated uranium tailings from the old Atlas Mill site in Moab. The the tailing are being removed 30 miles north. May 4, 2009. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News)

EnergySolutions was the predecessor to Portage on the removal contract, actually setting up the infrastructure and necessary procedures for the tailings to be buried at the disposal cell, including putting in roads and engineering the disposal site.

The cleanup of the site was given renewed attention in 2009, when $108 million in federal stimulus funding was awarded to the project. That infusion of money allowed DOE on-site managers to ramp up the removal schedule.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com, Twitter: amyjoi16

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