Tom Till, Associated Press
An aerial view the former Atlas Tailings pile, lower right, next to the Colorado River near Moab Utah.

Work will begin this fall on building infrastructure to haul by rail most of the 16 million tons of uranium-mill tailings away from the Colorado River near Moab to a disposal site 30 miles away in Crescent Junction by 2019.

The Department of Energy on Tuesday announced it approved the project's schedule, scope and cost parameters, which paves the way for rail work to begin, with expected completion in 2009.

The DOE also announced that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently gave its approval to begin construction of a 250-acre disposal cell, which is estimated to have a life of about 1,000 years.

"Thank goodness we're moving forward finally," Moab Mayor David Sakrison said. "This has been a long time coming."

EnergySolutions will be hauling the tailings to the site in Crescent Junction. Last year the company was awarded a $98 million contract to get the project going through the first phase, ending in 2011.

Sakrison said that after working for so long with people from EnergySolutions and the DOE, they've become like members of the community. "I think they want to do the right thing," he said. Still, a task force of community leaders and county officials will be part of ongoing oversight efforts.

It's anticipated the project, with its expected 2019 completion date, will cost up to $1 billion. A recent low-end estimate came in at around $844 million. Project costs just for fiscal year 2009 are predicted to be about $30 million and then between $79 million and $103 million each year after that until 2019.

The Senate Appropriations Committee last month approved spending $2 million just on expanding Route 191 between Moab and Crescent Junction from two lanes to four lanes. Though rail will be the predominant means of transportation, some of the tailings may still need to be hauled by truck.

Most people, including many Moab residents and the DOE, agree rail is the better way to rid the area of tailings. The tracks will include existing Union Pacific Railroad lines.

"We believe our decision will be most protective of the community over the long term," said James Rispoli, DOE assistant secretary for environmental management.

The DOE noted in its statement that a 2019 completion date is subject to securing sufficient funding from Congress. Previously, Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, has accused the DOE of dragging its feet as he pushed for the 2019 goal.

Since 2003, about 110 million gallons of contaminated groundwater near the 130-acre tailings site have been prevented from reaching the Colorado River. Monitoring wells continue to keep tabs on the groundwater plume and its levels of ammonia and uranium.

"I look forward to seeing the first batch of dirt leaving that site," Sakrison said. "It's a day for celebration, for sure ... We're going to have a hell of a party."

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