Money woes may slow tailings cleanup

Project to remove pile from banks of Colorado River could lose 2/3 of funding by 2012

Cleanup of the 16-million ton uranium mill-tailings pile near Moab, Utah, could be slowed for lack of funding, the head of the project said.

The U.S. Department of Energy cleanup that is hauling the pile north to Crescent Junction was helped significantly by stimulus money, Don Metzler, director of the project, said at the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce last month.

Funding for the project “is not secure at all,” Metzler said.

Budget forecasting suggests that 2012 will be a “tough time” for the Energy Department, Metzler said, but spending $90 million a year would make it possible to complete the cleanup by 2019, saving hundreds of millions in life-cycle costs of the $1 billion project.

Two trains a day, five days a week, haul tailings from the pile along the Colorado River next to Arches National Park to the 500-acre disposal cell at Crescent Junction.

By dint of several breaks, including stimulus funding, the project is operating with about $90 million a year now, but is to fall to the base amount of $30 million a year after 2011.

That amount would allow for only one train a day bound for Crescent Junction, which would make the cleanup too slow, Metzler said.

The work force is trained and prepared to operate on the two-train-a-day schedule, he said.

It would be the “best return on investment in the Department of Energy,” Metzler said.

The project now is to be completed in 2025.

The more likely scenario of funding of about $30 million a year would slow completion of the project to a crawl, he said.

The cleanup benefitted from a one-time infusion of $108 million in funding from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, which enabled the project to hire 220 people and sliced six years off the estimated completion date, Metzler said.

The trains carry about 5,000 tons of tailings per day.

Fine-tuning of the project since it began in 2009 has enabled the addition of one extra train car per run, Metzler said.

In less than 11 months, the cleanup had resulted in moving 1 million tons to Crescent Junction, and Metzler said he’s anticipating hitting the 2-million-ton mark in early August. By the end of 2011, the schedule calls for the removal of 4.5 million tons of sandy tailings to the disposal cell.

Eventually, the tailings will be entombed in four cells that will rise 30 feet above the desert floor, covering 250 acres of the 500-acre site in view of Interstate 70 in eastern Utah.

The project has won plaudits from local officials, private industry and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which lobbied long and hard to have the pile taken away from the river, its main supply of water for the Los Angeles area, Metzler said.

Employees have suffered no ill effects from their jobs dealing with the tailings, which are the remains of the uranium milling process and radioactive on a low level, Metzler said.

Three measurement systems are used and, Metzler said, “Nobody has ever gotten close to a dose where you would have to say you can’t work here anymore.”


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