Workers performing uranium tailings removal at the UMTRA (Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action) site just north of Moab were informed by their managers last week that a three month furlough will begin Dec. 1.
вЂњThis is a planned curtailment,вЂќ said Donald Metzler, federal project manager for the Department of Energy (DOE). вЂњIt shouldnвЂ™t be a surprise to anyone.вЂќ
There are now 112 employees working at the 480-acre site where Atlas Minerals Corporation processed uranium ore from 1956 to 1984. Approximately 25 employees will be retained during the furlough for safety and maintenance. No tailings will be moved during the furlough.
The site clean-up began in 2009 with Energy Solutions at the helm. Crews were hired to move 16 million tons of uranium tailings from the west bank of the Colorado River three miles north of Moab to a permanent disposal site 30 miles north near Crescent Junction. A third of the project was completed before it was put out for bid again.
The Department of Energy requested bids from contractors to move 650,000 tons of tailings a year 2011. Portage, Inc. was awarded the $121 million 5-year contract in November 2011. Energy Solutions challenged the bid. When the bid was upheld in April 2012, Portage announced that it would operate on a nine-month schedule.
вЂњWhile they could operate 12 months a year, it would be a more expensive option because of the low rate of tailings removal,вЂќ said Lee Shenton, liaison for UMTRA. вЂњThe contract specified 650,000 tons per year.вЂќ
Jeff Biagini, on-site manager for Portage Inc., said that the furlough had been planned since April.
вЂњIt shouldnвЂ™t have been a surprise to anyone,вЂќ Biagini said. вЂњWe were hoping for additional funding and that didnвЂ™t happen.вЂќ
Moab City and Grand County councils sent several letters appealing to Senators and Congressmen to allow for additional Department of Energy funding for year-round tailings removal.
вЂњObviously IвЂ™m very disappointed. I feel like IвЂ™ve failed the community and the workers out there not to secure some kind of financial sustainability,вЂќ said Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison. вЂњIвЂ™m disappointed in DOE and disappointed in Portage. IвЂ™m disappointed in our congressional delegation, that they didnвЂ™t help us, or even try at all.вЂќ
Sakrison said Congressman Jim Matheson was the only one to take any interest, вЂњand heвЂ™s not even our congressman anymore.вЂќ
The city and the county are still pursuing congressional and state leads to secure additional DOE funding for the next four years of the Portage contract in order to allow year-round tailings removal and employment.
вЂњTime is of the essence,вЂќ Sakrison said. вЂњI donвЂ™t want to see a repeat of what weвЂ™re going to experience this year.вЂќ
Metzler expressed that securing funding this year was difficult.
вЂњWe have been trying to demonstrate why the project could potentially help us with more funding,вЂќ Metzler. вЂњWe have to understand the constraints that the federal government and economy is under.вЂќ
He is optimistic that DOE funding will be available to allow Portage to operate year-round for the rest of the contract.
вЂњWeвЂ™re hoping this curtailment is a one time deal and we can all get through this and the pains associated with that and get going again.вЂќ Metzler said.
Sakrison is very concerned that residents will leave.
вЂњThere will be an outmigration in this community. If there is no job, they’re gone,вЂќ Sakrison said. вЂњThese people have families. To expect them to find jobs in the winter is unrealistic. If they leave the area it will have a multiplier affect on our economy. This is a no-win situation for the community and the people that work out there,вЂќ Sakrison said. вЂњI feel bad for the people who have to find jobs at Christmas.вЂќ
Biagini is concerned that furloughed workers will not return.
вЂњOne of our biggest risks is that they will go elsewhere,вЂќ Biagini said.
Shenton pointed out that there are more than 200 jobs available in the Uintah Basin that require the similar skill sets of those now employed at the Moab Tailings Site.
Due to radioactivity and safety concerns, additional training is necessary for all employees at the site. If workers donвЂ™t return to their jobs in March, additional time will be necessary to train new hires.
вЂњEven though I may be able to hire a truck driver or equipment operator, IвЂ™ll still have to give him two weeks of training before he can begin regular job functions,вЂќ Biagini said.
Metzler expressed that more than time would be lost.
вЂњIt would be hard to replace this work force if they didnвЂ™t return. The project has an outstanding safety record.вЂќ Metzler said. вЂњPart of having an outstanding safety record is that the workers come focused, they know the procedures, and they know the hazards. They work such so that there arenвЂ™t safety incidents. To have a project with this type of culture and workforce is not haphazard. It is because of efforts by everyone.вЂќ
Biagini said that they are looking to see if Portage and some of the subcontractors will be able to find additional work during the furlough.
вЂњAs we go into the next week or two weвЂ™ll know if we have another job for them,вЂќ Biagini said.
Additional employees may be needed to do construction work at the Portage site in Crescent Junction.
вЂњHonestly I do worry about this and lose sleep over this,вЂќ Biagini said. вЂњWeвЂ™re all genuinely concerned for the workers. It may not be fair, but it is what it is. We want the workers to understand weвЂ™re going to be straight with them.вЂќ
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