We have a tough situation on the national level. We have a big deficit. There's a lot of pressure to cut federal spending. —Donald Metzler, Moab federal project director
MOAB — Environmental crews have removed more than 5 million tons of radioactive tailings from the banks of the Colorado River in less than three years.
They still have about 11 million tons to go, but the pace of the cleanup is about to slow down.
Portage Inc., the company set to take over the job April 29, has announced that it will suspend work on the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action project for three months each year during the term of its contract.
Despite the seasonal shutdown, the company still expects to meet the U.S. Energy Department's requirement that it "process, ship and dispose of 650,000 tons (annually)," said Dennis Dalga, the Moab operations site manager for Portage.
"It was left up to the bidders to propose how they were going to do that work," he said.
"The best solution was to go with a nine-month schedule," said Dalga, who cited budget issues as the primary reason for the decision.
"It also allowed us to deal with some of the issues that they've had in the past, as far as freezing material in the winter," he said.
Portage's announcement that it will stop work in December, January and February, is unwelcome news to elected officials like Grand County Councilwoman Audrey Graham.
"Basically our (residents) all depend on a nine-month season, and right now to be told that this major project will have that same, essentially that same, nine-month season is a big blow for us," she said.
"We need jobs that are year-round," added Graham, who is also the co-chair of the Moab Tailings Project Steering Committee.
The UMTRA project employs as many as 180 people. One-third of those workers are Grand County residents, according to Lee Shenton, the county's UMTRA liaison.
"The loss of these jobs would set us back 10 years," Shenton said, noting that the county had roughly 800 "trades" jobs in 2011, up from about 750 in 2001.
EnergySolutions had the initial contract to remove the waste left behind by a now-defunct uranium mine. That $98.7 million contract expired Dec. 31, though the company was granted an extension to continue working while the contract was put up for bid again, a standard practice for U.S. Energy Department cleanup projects.
A new five-year, $121-millon contract was awarded to Portage late last year.
But unlike EnergySolutions, Portage will be operating without the benefit of $108 million in federal stimulus funding awarded to the UMTRA project in 2009.
"We had that over a two-year period and that really helped us get ahead of schedule and really make a lot of progress," said Moab federal project director Donald Metzler.
Before the stimulus money ran out in July 2011, EnergySolutions was shipping an average of 12,000 tons of the uranium mining waste each week to a disposal site 30 miles away, at Crescent Junction, via 88 railroad cars.
Graham is worried that the reduced funding for the project — the primary factor in Portage's switch to a nine-month work schedule — will have an impact not only on the area's economy but on the environment.
The initial plan called for the cleanup to be completed by 2019, Graham said.
"The rate they're talking about at this moment means the pile would take another 17 years to move," she said. "That is unacceptable to us and we're hoping it's unacceptable to the people downriver from us."
Metzler acknowledged that "the funding these days is probably not as much as some people in the community would like to see."
"But we have a tough situation on the national level," Metzler said. "We have a big deficit. There's a lot of pressure to cut federal spending."
The Grand County Council has signed a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu that asks for at least another $5 million for the UMTRA project.
"There are 22 signees on to the letter," Graham said. "So it's not just little old Grand County down here kicking and screaming and throwing a temper tantrum. It's lots of people, lots of organizations that are concerned with this slowdown."