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Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Donald Mtzler is the Federal Project Director of the UMTRA Project which over seeing the removal of contaminated uranium tailings from the old Atlas Mill site in Moab. The the tailing are being removed 30 miles north. Monday, May 4, 2009 Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

MOAB — The biggest cleanup of waste in Utah history has made remarkable progress in the past two years. But the speedy pace of the project is threatened by a probable slowdown in federal funding.

Depending on funding levels, the disposal of radioactive tailings from Moab's defunct Atlas uranium mill will stretch on at least six more years and could take two or three times that long.

Controversy about what to do with a mountain of radioactive red dirt was the subject of debate in Moab for a generation. Sixteen million tons of mill tailings sat in a huge man-made plateau just a few hundred feet from the Colorado River. For decades, the tailings threatened to wash down river, carrying chemically toxic and radioactive materials into the drinking water of 22 million people.

Now, a $1 billion disposal effort stretches 30 miles north to a huge landfill near Crescent Junction on I-70. Two years ago, prime contractor EnergySolutions began using heavy equipment to dig up the tailings and pour them into large, leak-proof boxes that were specially designed for the project.

"There are some nasty substances in that uranium mill tailings pile," said Val Christensen, president and chief executive officer of EnergySolutions.

Rail cars carry the containers 30 miles north to an off-loading facility at the foot of the Book Cliffs. The red dirt is dumped into a landfill and compacted. It will eventually cover 250 acres, 40 feet deep with radioactive tailings.

"About an 8- to 10-foot cap on top of that will keep the mill tailing pile from eroding or blowing away," Christensen said. That cap, consisting of a thick layer of boulders, is engineered to hold the waste 1,000 years without maintenance.

"And then nobody has to worry about it," said Donald Metzler, who manages the project for the U.S. Department of Energy. "And it won't cost any money, to speak of, to keep it monitored for the long term."

Over the last two years, the project has consumed $220 million and disposed of 3.3 million tons of tailings. Initial estimates placed a lifetime price tag of $1 billion on a project that would take two decades or more. Metzler says it now appears the job can be done quicker and cheaper, with a final price total of about $900 million.

"We're ahead of schedule," Metzler said. "We are actually 90 trains ahead of schedule, and we are under cost."

But the project faces an uncertain future as Washington grapples with priorities in an era when many voters are clamoring for budget cuts.

"You should ask the people in Moab and the people who depend on the Colorado River," Christensen said. "They would tell you this is the No. 1 priority to them."

The speedier project was made possible by $108 million in federal stimulus money. That allowed EnergySolutions to haul two trainloads of tailings each day instead of one. The stimulus money runs out later this year. If the funding stream is not replaced, the project will likely be scaled back to one train a day.

That's not the only infusion of money the project needs.

"We will need new money in April," Metzler said. "We're out of money at the end of this month."

Metzler admits there are conflicting budget priorities in Washington, but he professes optimism and says Congress and the Department of Energy are strongly behind the project. "They're supportive of where we are," Metzler said.

If the federal stimulus money runs out and the project is cut back to one train a day, the workforce is likely to shrink by about two-thirds, from just over 300 jobs to around 100 jobs. Depending on how fast and how much funding comes in, it could take anywhere from six years to about 15 more years to get the job done.

EnergySolutions also faces a potential setback. After collecting $220 million in revenues so far, the company's contract expires at the end of this year. The contract will be opened for rebidding this summer, and numerous companies are said to be interested. Christensen said his company hopes to win the new contract in a partnership with a smaller business.

e-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com