The federal government has said it will sharply reduce the money it contributes to the removal of old uranium mill tailings near Moab, and the decision could prolong the cleanup by at least another decade.
The project is of immense importance economically and environmentally to southeastern Utah, and in recent years, there has been significant progress in tailings removal. All of that justifies the government taking a second look at its course of diminishing investment.
There are principally two reasons for a projected slowdown. First, the Department of Energy contracts with private companies to handle the cleanup and recently awarded a new five-year contract to a company new to the project, which has to now start up its operations.
Second, a one-time grant of over $100 million in federal stimulus money helped speed along the removal for a period of two years. With that money gone, the pace of cleanup will likely slow considerably.
The previous contractor, EnergySolutions Inc., was able to remove 5 million tons of tailings from the banks of the Colorado River in three years. The new contractor, Portage Inc., says the terms of its arrangement with the federal government will not allow it to match that pace of removal. The company says for financial reasons, it will not work on the project year-round, but only from March through November.
Portage says it will still meet the government's requirement that at least 650 thousand tons are removed a year, but that would be roughly half the amount that has been annually removed so far.
As a result, Grand County officials say it could take another 17 years to finish. The government had wanted the cleanup to be complete by 2019.
The Grand County Council has written to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, asking for another $5 million in funds to help reduce the projected slack in the pace of the project.
The stimulus money was well spent, and the government is rightly under pressure to keep its purse strings tight, but the significance of the work being done along one of America's most important and scenic waterways justifies the request from Grand County and deserves the Energy Department's serious consideration.