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Contract protests erupt over Moab tailings removal

MOAB — Work to remove more than 11 million tons of remaining radioactive tailings near the banks of the Colorado River will continue on schedule, despite a protest war over a lucrative remediation contract.

With $121 million at stake in a five-year contract awarded by the United States Department of Energy, the losing bidders have struck back in protest, wanting to secure more work to remove what remains from the waste left by a now-defunct uranium mine.

Both EnergySolutions and Gonzales-Stoller have filed protests over a bid being awarded to a competitor company called Portage, for cleanup of the former Atlas mill site. To date, a little more than 4.8 million tons have been removed.

EnergySolutions had the initial contract when the cleanup first began in 2009, but that $98.7-million contract was set to expire Dec. 31.

As is standard with DOE cleanup contracts, the work was reissued for bid and was awarded to Portage, sparking the protests. Those protests will be reviewed by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which will analyze the specifics of the bids to determine if there were any irregularities in the contract award.

The dust-up over the DOE contract called into question the possibility of interrupting the pace of the tailings removal, which had been accelerated by an infusion of $108 million in federal stimulus funding awarded in 2009.

Prior to the stimulus money running out in July, an average of 12,000 tons of the uranium mining waste was being shipped on a weekly basis to a disposal site 30 miles away, at Crescent Junction, via 88 railroad cars.

EnergySolutions, as part of its initial contract, engineered the disposal site.

In August 2010, the DOE announced a milestone in the removal, with enough tailings to fill a 60-story building — 2 million tons — having been ferried away from the 439-acre site. The project was ahead of schedule and under budget, leading to prestigious awards being given by Energy Secretary Steven Chu to EnergySolutions as well as to DOE project leader Don Metzler this fall.

It must have been with some surprise, then, that EnergySolutions lost out on the contract.

Spokesman Mark Walker said on Thursday that the company was limited in what it could comment on, but did say officials are confident in the review process.

DOE spokesman Bill Taylor said EnergySolutions was granted an extension on its contract until March 31 to ensure the work continues on pace.

"These protests are not unusual," he said.

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