From The Deseret News (Amy Joi O’Donoghue):
The removal of 16 million tons of radioactive waste perched on the banks of the Colorado River near Moab is more than halfway complete, but the work has slowed and the project is facing funding cuts.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said any reduction in federal spending to eliminate the “massive hazard” is unacceptable, especially in light of the U.S. Department of Energy’s request for more money to spend on headquarter operations.
“While projects in the field are suffering from budget cuts, headquarter operations in Washington, D.C., were increased nearly 80 percent in 2016 and the department is requesting an additional 8 percent increase for 2017,” he wrote in a letter to U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
Chaffetz’s letter on April 25 noted the radioactive tailings, a legacy of the defunct Atlas uranium ore processing mill, pose a unique threat to downstream Colorado River users.
“Removal of these tailings from the former national defense site will eliminate a massive hazard from the doorsteps of Moab residents and the 25 million downstream water users in places such as Las Vegas and Los Angeles,” he wrote.
Removal of the uranium tailings has already slowed, with 31 of 112 site employees of contractor Portage laid off on April 26 and rail trips to the disposal site cut in half.
Don Metzler, the director of the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project, said the reduction in the number of employees happened due to the shifting nature of the project.
The second phase of the disposal cell 30 miles north at Crescent Junction is nearing capacity, with little room left to hold additional quantities of the radioactive waste.
“Our capacity to put tailings at Crescent Junction got smaller and smaller,” Metzler said. Excavation for the third phase of the disposal is beginning, he added, but fewer workers are necessary until that capacity grows…
Because of the nature of the radioactive waste, the actual shipping containers are starting to corrode, he said.
“These shipping containers have worked really hard for us,” Metzler said, adding that work has shifted to repair those containers rather than just move tailings.
The project had been shipping 18,400 tons of tailings four times per week into October from the 480-acre site. The slowdown and layoffs of workers reduced those rail trips to twice weekly, hauling 9,200 tons as workers build up storage capacity.
Lee Shenton, Grand County’s community liaison on the project, said it is disappointing that the tailings removal has slowed and workers had to be let go.
“What we are seeing now is the culmination of chronic underfunding since about 2012. The project worked hard, and I saw it, and I can confirm they worked hard to avoid (layoffs) in the past,” Shenton said.
He said community leaders were informed several years ago that the U.S. Department of Energy was going to shift its funding priorities to higher risk projects, and Moab’s tailings pile doesn’t pose the type of severe threat compared to Hanford, Washington, a contaminated nuclear waste site next to the Columbia River.
The Moab project is slated to receive about $3.8 million less in funding, or 10 percent less. The timeline for completion was set for 2025, but that will now have to be reviewed.
Chaffetz is hoping to prevent any delays.
“The government must keep its committment to clean up Cold War era sites and prioritize water safety over headquarter operations in Washington, D.C.,” he said.