SALT LAKE TRIBUNE 6-9-17 Neighbors call regulators heartless

Jun 9, 2017

by Emma Penrod

Dom Smith | Courtesy of EcoFlight This aerial photo shot in April 2015 shows the White Mesa Uranium mill near Blanding and its evaporation ponds. In comments to the U.S. Interior Department, state officials are claiming the mill — and Utah's uranium industry — are being jeopardized by President Obama's designation in December of the Bears Ears National Monument.

State regulators and operators of the White Mesa uranium mill near Blanding confirmed the facility's license does not require owner Energy Fuels to notify residents of a nearby Ute Mountain Ute reservation in the event of an accidental release of radioactive materials or other emergencies.

The news drew audible gasps during a Thursday hearing at Utah Department of Environmental Quality offices as state agencies consider renewing the White Mesa mill's operating license, which expired in 2007, and review several other requests from the facility.

In the audience was a small contingent from the Ute Mountain Ute reservation town of White Mesa, which has a population around 300 residents and is located less than five miles from the mill.

"I felt that somebody from White Mesa should come up and show them that we do care," Dutchie said, "and that we want this mill to be shut down."

Lakewood, Col.-based Energy Fuels filed to have its operating permit renewed in 2007, and state regulators say they have been reviewing that application ever since. Thursday's hearing on the issue at the state Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control will be followed by one in Blanding on June 15.

State officials held throughout Thursday's public comments that known issues with contaminated groundwater just beneath the mill have been addressed, and that there is no evidence its tailings cells have leaked. Levels of radon gas, a byproduct of uranium known to cause cancer, have decreased at the mill's tailings ponds, regulators said, and remain well below the threshold thought to cause harm to humans.

But the mill's emergency plans emerged as a central theme at the hearing, at times sparking emotional reactions from the audience.

Sharee Tso, an advocate with the Urban Indian Center, at one point called state officials "heartless, insensitive, and basically evil and criminal."

"I'm really, really disappointed in you guys," Tso told them. "If this mill was here in Salt Lake, you guys would be on it. You would be on the TV, on the radio, you'd have the sirens going on, police going door to door. But in White Mesa you don't give a care ... You guys are all sitting there in suits, all nicely groomed and shoes shined, but who gives a care about the damn Indians? Nobody."

Herald Roberts, Energy Fuels' former executive vice president of operations and now a consultant, said the company would typically notify San Juan County and Blanding officials in case of emergencies. Those entities, Roberts said, would presumably relay emergency information to White Mesa. Blanding is located about 10 miles from White Mesa, and the mill is situated between the two towns.

Roberts later said he was unaware there might be an issue with emergency notification for the town of White Mesa as it was never requested before. He said Energy Fuels would now add it to emergency plans.

Furthermore, Roberts said, "we feel we operate safely. There is a limited set of circumstances that would not be safe."

Tso and others questioned why three company officials sat at the front of hearing room alongside state regulators, while environmentalists and members of the public in the audience looked on. White Mesa residents clustered at the back of the room, some with handmade signs and T-shirts protesting the mill.

"There are other chairs they could sit at just like the rest of us here," said Yolanda Badback, a White Mesa resident and longtime opponent of the mill.

Craig Anderson, chief for the environmental division of the Utah attorney general's office and the hearing moderator, said Energy Fuels representatives sat at the front because their application was focus of the hearing, and they needed to be on hand to answer questions.

Environmental groups focused primarily on concerns about groundwater contamination, air quality monitoring at the mill, and several recent spills involving radioactive materials being shipped to White Mesa.

They also questioned whether state regulators have adequate information on Energy Fuels' proposal to process a new stream of radioactive material from a decommissioned uranium enrichment plant called Sequoyah Fuels in Gore, Okla.

State regulators have data on the total volume of materials disposed of in the White Mesa mill's tailings cells, said Phil Goble, who oversees the uranium mills and radioactive materials section at the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control. But Goble said they do not always have exact data on how much of each individual chemical the materials contain.

David Frydenlund, senior vice president and general counsel for Energy Fuels, said that, in the past, exact amounts of materials shipped to the mill had deviated by as much as 50 percent above what was originally quoted.

"It is impossible to quantify with precision the exact numbers," he said.

Goble said that so long as Energy Fuels complies with all the state and federal regulatory standards, the mill would have minimal impact on the environment and on nearby residents.

 

epenrod@sltrib.com

Twitter: @EmaPen

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