MOAB — Stimulus funding awarded two years ago is due to run out this summer for the U.S. Department of Energy's removal of radioactive tailings outside Moab, which will result in 200 people being laid off — or nearly two-thirds of the project's workforce.
"It is pretty emotional, to be honest with you," said the Energy Department's project director Don Metzler.
The contract employees facing termination are part of an "A-team" Metzler said has put the project ahead of schedule beyond anyone's expectations.
What was once 16 million tons of radioactive uranium tailings left from the legacy of a now-defunct mine has been reduced by nearly 25 percent.
In June, Metzler said he expects the removal to hit the 4-million-ton milestone. Cleanup was accelerated with the April 2009 allocation of $108 million in federal stimulus funding that allowed the project to run trains hauling 144 containers twice daily, five days a week. The tailings, located outside of town near the Colorado River, are ferried to a disposal site 30 miles away at Crescent Junction.
Removal of the tailings has long been a priority for Colorado River water users for fear the tailings will contaminate the river, threatening the drinking supply for 30 million users downstream.
Concerns have also been raised about the tailings' impact on residents and recreationists in Moab when winds kick up what essentially is gigantic mound of red dirt known locally as the Pile.
The DOE removal project has helped kick-start the livelihood of many southern and central Utah residents and some from western Colorado because Metzler made it his priority to cull from workforces within a 150-mile radius.
"The humanistic part of this is the workforce has done such a great job and really risen to the occasion," Metzler said. "They come to work with shoulders and chin up and are still going hard every day."
Metzler said the project is 116 trains ahead of schedule on a base-line measurement, and by contract — a tighter measurement — 53 trains ahead of schedule.
With the stimulus due to dry up sometime in July, Metzler said he will be forced to run just one train a day, and maybe just four days a week. The project is slated for completion in 2025.
"We wish we did not have to slow things down. We ran with it hard, knowing it would only last about two years."
He said the impacted contract employees work for EnergySolutions, Envirocon and Nielson Construction. All companies have been working with state and federal agencies to help them land new jobs.
"I'm just so proud of these guys. They are the ones getting the job done, not the management team. All we did is give them the right tools. There's been no quit in them."