A recent research report from Grand Canyon Trust (GCT) alleges that the White Mesa uranium mill adjacent to Bears Ears National Monument has exploited a regulatory loophole to transform itself into an under-regulated toxic waste dump.
The mill, under ownership of Energy Fuels Resources (EFR), has now interned more than 700 million pounds of radioactive waste from across the globe, effectively becoming a waste pit for the world’s polluters — all at the expense of American health and safety, the report says.
According to the report, the loophole exploited by the White Mesa uranium mill involves terming low-grade radioactive waste as “alternate feeds.” The White Mesa Mill accepts the radioactive waste for a fee, “recycles” it through its mill to extract small amounts of uranium and then dumps the leftovers in its onsite waste ponds.
The mill began the practice in the 1980s when low uranium prices made the mill unprofitable. The GCT report explored Utah records to find that since the late 1980s, the State of Utah has expressed skepticism that the motivation for these “devious methods” was “not the stated purpose of extracting small amounts of remnant uranium, but rather to ultimately dispose of the wastes while profiting from the fees.”
Nonetheless, the GCT report suggests that in the decades that followed, EFR finessed its licensing and business model to permit the mill’s acceptance of increasingly high volumes of contaminated waste under the guise of “recycling,” thereby turning it into “a de facto low-cost disposal site for radioactive waste.”
The White Mesa waste ponds — a number of which have recorded leaks and outdated containment systems — sit atop the Navajo Aquifer, which supplies drinking water to southeastern Utah and northern Arizona. A 2011 U.S. Geological Survey study identified chemical “plumes” beneath the waste ponds indicating strong potential for environmental contamination. The findings have raised serious concerns about contamination of the aquifer, especially for the White Mesa community on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, just a few miles down from the mill.
“We see clear signs of leakage and feel it is urgent that the state take action to prevent a catastrophe,” said Collin Larrick, water quality specialist for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
Manuel Heart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, described the water that is currently being pulled from the White Mesa community wells as “grayish” and having the smell of “boiled eggs.”
“This is what our tribal members in White Mesa are dealing with on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
A 2018 study from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s Environmental Programs Department confirmed increased acidity in the springs near the White Mesa Mill.
Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a community member and former co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, believes the mill’s impact on the White Mesa environment is responsible for the “breathing complications” that have afflicted her granddaughter since birth.
“Since then, I truly became aware of what water means to our community,” Lopez-Whiteskunk said. “It’s just not a scientific formula. It’s not regulations that are formed at a very high level in Washington D.C. and administered through the state capitol of Salt Lake City. It’s impacting our families.”
The mill’s effect on air quality is also a concern.
Ute Mountain Ute representative Malcom Lehi described how on windy days, the community is plagued by an acrid odor.
“We get that smell from the uranium, or whatever it is they’re burning from their stacks,” Lehi said.
Lopez-Whiteskunk noted that her grandchildren breathe this air every day. She said when they are bused to school, “they have to pass by the White Mesa Mill.”
Curtis Moore, vice president of marketing and corporate development for EFR, dismissed the GCT report — despite its hundreds of sources cited from government documents — as “not credible.”
“The White Mesa Mill is a fully permitted facility that is heavily regulated by an array of state and federal agencies and operates to the highest environmental, health and human rights standards in the world,” Moore said in a statement to the Arizona Daily Sun.
He reiterated the mill’s purpose as “recycling,” and praised the mill’s operation as “setting an example for responsible and sustainable operations.”
In his statement, Moore quoted the uranium recovered from the White Mesa Mill as totaling “6 million pounds” — a figure consistent with the GCT report’s assessment that about 1% of the 700 million pounds of radioactive waste disposed at White Mesa ends up being recycled.
While Moore told the Daily Sun that White Mesa was “a world-leading facility,” in a 2021 interview with KUER Radio in southeast Utah, he suggested that the mill is scraping by on disposal fees rather than the products of its “recycling.”
“The White Mesa Mill barely makes money,” Moore said. “It’s always at risk of permanent closure.”
Let it close, said Arizona Congressman Raúl Grijalva.
“Unfortunately, [White Mesa Mill] tells a story all too common across the Western United States,” Grijalva said. “We cannot allow efforts to prop up these unprofitable businesses to come at the expense of clean water, public health and community safety.”
At the very least, EFR should drop the charade and accept responsibility for the service the White Mesa Mill provides, said Tim Peterson of GCT.
“If [the mill] wants to function as a radioactive disposal business, it should be regulated as one,” Peterson said.
Joel Brisoce of the Utah House of Representatives said the American people have the right to demand that EFR face the market honestly instead of hiding behind regulatory loopholes.
“The people who live next to [the mill] and the people around it who take water from the aquifer need to have the confidence that they will be protected under the best environmental regulations,” he said. “If [the White Mesa Mill] can’t do that and make money, then the market has spoken. And the mill should go.”
Currently, the White Mesa Mill shows no sign of slowing down its waste disposal operations, and due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there are rumors of an uptick in North American uranium production.
On March 11, S&P Global Market Intelligence reported that the conflict has driven uranium spot prices to a 10-year high. This price spike has to do with supply chain disruption and speculation that Russian uranium will become increasingly less available as the war continues.
“Russia is the largest enricher of uranium for the global market,” said Paul Lenze of Northern Arizona University’s Department of Politics and International Affairs. “I’m sure the response to the spike will be increased domestic mining and refining to offset the increased prices.”
That shoe hasn’t quite dropped yet, said Jeff Hryhoriw, director of government relations and communications for Cameco Corporation, a Canadian uranium company that ships radioactive waste to the White Mesa Mill.
“At present, Cameco’s production plan remains the same,” Hryhoriw said. “If the uranium price continues to improve to the point where we feel the market is calling for increased production on a sustainable, long-term basis, Cameco is well positioned to respond — but our decisions here will be based entirely on market signals.”
It’s unclear how increased uranium prices could affect the White Mesa Mill — but it is possible that if North American uranium production increased, the mill could resume its originally intended function and slide away from the “waste dump” model it has practiced over the last few decades.
Even if such a course relieved some public scrutiny over the mill’s operation, EFR still must answer for the last 30 years of abuse, Lopez-Whiteskunk said.
“If they’re not going to follow the regulations, then they need to close,” she said. “But they also need to be held responsible and accountable for all the damage that has been done, and make every effort to clean it up to leave the land better than you found it. That’s a very traditional and cultural way, how all our indigenous people think. We hold that standard over anybody who’s on our land.”