DOE says moving tailings by 2019 could top $1.1 billion
by Craig Bigler
contributing writer
Jul 10, 2008 | 2482 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The U.S. Department of Energy told Congress last month that relocating the 16 million tons of Atlas Uranium mill tailings by the 2019 deadline will increase the project’s cost to as much as $1.1 billion.

In the DOE’s report to Congress on the annual funding requirements needed to complete removal the tailings project by 2019, the DOE estimated that the total cost for the project will be $844.2 million to $1.1 billion, with annual expenditures ranging between $79 million to $103 million beginning in 2010 and ending in 2019.

The total cost of moving the pile by 2028 would range between $723 million and $951 million, according to DOE’s 2009 budget request. That anticipates a yearly funding average of $38 million to $50 million, beginning in 2010. But, the request states, “Full cost of remediation will not be known until a performance baseline is established.”

“It is a modest increase, given that it would finish the project nine years earlier,” DOE Assistant Press Secretary Joann Wardrip said this week.

The DOE’s budget for the project in 2008 was $23.7 million, increasing to $30.5 million for the 2009 fiscal year.

The report follows the letter of the congressional mandate, which required only that the annual funding requirements be reported. The report offers no clue about how the amounts were determined, or which transportation mode – railroad or truck – might be used to meet the 2019 deadline. It also does not state when the final decision on the transportation method will be made or when it will be announced.

Wardrip said the DOE report contains an error. The report includes a clause requiring a public meeting to be held before the decision is finalized, according to Wardrip. She said that meeting was the one DOE officials held on June 5.

The report outlines five transportation alternatives that were considered: single-trailer trucking; tandem-trailer trucking; rail only; a combination of rail and trucking; and trucking followed by rail shipments. “DOE’s evaluation of the contractor-developed alternatives includes factors such as estimated cost, the effect on worker and public safety, and any contractual changes required if the transportation method is changed from predominantly rail,” the report states.

Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) is not pleased, according to his communications director Alyson Heyrend. Heyrend termed the report “vague.”

“The congressman is very determined to have the tailings removed by 2019, and he is eager to get more information from DOE as to what underlies these new numbers. He is firm on the deadline,” she said.

Wardrip said that the $477 million estimate cited in the original record of decision issued in 2005 was based on general experience and not on the specifics of the actual site and transportation issues. She compared the situation to a construction project where the initial cost estimate is almost always a ballpark figure that is inevitably increased as specifics are taken into account.

The added cost for the earlier completion date may stem from improvements to U.S. 191 that the Utah Department of Transportation would require before allowing tailings shipments to go on the highway from Moab to the Crescent Junction disposal site. At the DOE’s June 5 public meeting in Moab, DOE Project Manager Don Metzler talked about uncertainties regarding truck transportation that drive up the cost of highway transport, including the possibility that UDOT would require that new lanes be built before hauling could begin.

Wardrip would not comment on those uncertainties; she said negotiations with both Union Pacific Railroad and UDOT are underway.

Another ongoing concern is that Congress would be less likely to balk at the annual funding appropriation required to complete the project by 2028 than the much larger amount needed for completion by 2019.

In fact “Moab,” as the project is called in the budget request, is lumped in a category called “all other sites,” which includes the Argonne and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories along with sites near much larger populations. The $30 million allocated to the Moab project for 2009 makes up more than half the funding request that budget category.

Given the federal budget deficit and the political clout of more populated areas, Grand County Council member Joette Langianese expressed concerns that the project could take longer than officials have hoped. “The county should be prepared for this project to take 20 years or more,” Langianese said. “I hope I’m wrong.”

The 2009 DOE budget request comprises 616 pages and includes more than $25 billion in total discretionary funding.

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