Colorado, Utah tribe worries nation’s last uranium mill is contaminating water, causing uptick in illness

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Colorado, Utah tribe worries nation’s last uranium mill is contaminating water, causing uptick in illness

Date: 04/20/2022     Category: News & Media     Author: Conrad Swanson     Publication: The Denver Post    

Officials at White Mesa Mill say contamination in the area doesn’t come from them, plan to expand

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Seven-year-old Juniper Link plays outside his ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
 Seven-year-old Juniper Link plays outside his home on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation on April 5, 2022, in White Mesa, Utah. The elders in his family, including his uncle Michael Badback, worry that radioactive waste from the White Mesa Mill is contaminating groundwater and the air around their tribal community.

WHITE MESA, Utah — In the kitchen of his sister’s weathered, single-story home, Michael Badback thrusts a blue plastic cup under the faucet, fills it halfway and trudges into her living room.

“Smell this,” he said, holding out the tepid water.

Sulfur. Rotten eggs. Leaves a rust-colored stain on bathtubs and kitchen sinks.

He shakes his head. Nobody in his family has been willing to drink the water for years. Not with the White Mesa Mill — a uranium and rare earth processing plant — just a few miles to the north.

Instead, the family lives off bottled water, buying cases whenever they can. Although the nearest steady supply lies at a Walmart location in Cortez, Colorado, about 70 miles away, they said.

Badback and environmentalists say they’re concerned that the mill, the only one of its kind operating in the country, has contaminated the area’s water, soil, plants and animals.

“A lot of people are having health issues they’ve never had before,” Badback, who belongs to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said.

It’s too late to move away, Badback said, too difficult to start a new life elsewhere. Plus much of his family still lives in the area, his ancestral lands.

The White Mesa Mill produces refined uranium, vanadium and rare earth compounds used for nuclear fuels, the creation of steel, batteries and electric cars. Toxic compounds left over from the process, called tailings, are poured into massive ponds on site.

White Mesa residents take note when smoke rises from the mill and keep close watch over the tailing ponds, Badback said. They cough painfully when the wind blows. Children suffer from respiratory problems and adults worry about cancer.

Little information is shared with those in White Mesa, part of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s territory that extends into Colorado and New Mexico, Badback said. Residents are mostly on their own.

Documents obtained and analyzed by The Denver Post show that Utah regulators have cited the mill at least 40 times since 1999 for violations ranging from administrative issues and failures to adequately collect and report data to “discharging pollutants” into the state’s waterways.

For all those violations the mill has paid a total of $176,874.91 in penalties. For context, in the third quarter of 2021, Energy Fuels, the company that owns and operates the mill, reported that it had more than $100 million in cash.

Monitoring wells at the site show concentrations of uranium, nitrates, cadmium, nickel and more regularly testing above state limits.

Uranium levels at one well spiked over 600% higher than acceptable federal limits for drinking water, data collected by the mill shows.

Tribal officials say recent protests and official appeals against contamination in the ground water only resulted in state regulators raising the thresholds for acceptable limits. Experts hired by the tribe caught leaks at the tailing ponds and say other leaks are likely.

Ultimately tribal officials and residents in the area say they’re concerned the toxins will seep deeper into the ground and contaminate the Burro Canyon Aquifer — which is already showing signs of contamination — and then into the Navajo Aquifer underneath, on which some 50,000 Native Americans depend.

Michael Badback takes a moment from ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver PostMichael Badback takes a moment from working on his car on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation on April 5, 2022, in White Mesa, Utah.

Late last year the Environmental Protection Agency cited the mill for violating the Clean Air Act and potentially exposing the area to radon emissions.

Communications officials with Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality would not allow regulators to speak with The Denver Post, instead solely communicating through email. But documents indicate those regulators believe that high levels of toxic compounds come from “legacy sources” predating the mill.

Officials with Energy Fuels say the same and add that nitrogen and chloroform plumes in the area also have no link to the mill.

“We have the utmost sympathy for (residents) but it’s not coming from us,” Curtis Moore, vice president of marketing and corporate development for Energy Fuels, said.

The mill is state of the art, Moore said, and tightly regulated. It’s also poised to expand.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
A sign warns of radioactive materials near the White Mesa Mill on April 4, 2022, in White Mesa, Utah.

It’s one of the largest private employers in the area and could soon expand amid calls for American energy independence and increasing demands for electric vehicles.

Doctors with the Colorado School of Public Health and the University of New Mexico express concerns over the contaminants and say they could cause heart, lung and kidney diseases, birth defects, autoimmune problems and cancer. Children in the area would be particularly susceptible, they say.

Despite arguments from state regulators and mill officials, contamination on the site appears to be worsening, which could certainly stem from the mill, said Dr. Matthew Campen, director of the state’s Center for Metals in Biology and Medicine.

“It looks like things were relatively stable until 2010, 2011 and then they really took off,” Campen said. “This is a really bad trend.”

Seven-year-old Juniper Link plays outside his ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Juniper Link, 7, plays outside his home on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation on April 5, 2022, in White Mesa, Utah.

“What’s gonna happen if things get worse and worse?”

Just south of the mill, Badback squinted and watched as Juniper, his seven-year-old great-nephew, played in a yard dotted with empty water bottles, rusty car parts and tattered canvas sheets. Flotsam and jetsam of the desert.

He recalled a spring to the northeast from which he used to drink. Now what little water remains smells and is surrounded by white crystals from high alkalinity.

He waves a hand over the gray and brittle sage brush covering the landscape. The plants used to hold their green color even through long and severe droughts. Jackrabbits used to fill the area but he hasn’t seen one for years.

He points to old trails near the mill, once used by friends and family members. Now he questions whether he’s the only one who remembers them.

“What’s gonna happen if things get worse and worse?” Badback said.

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Yolanda Badback sits in the living room at her family’s home on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation on April 5, 2022, in White Mesa, Utah.

“It’s looking a little fishy…”

People in White Mesa, part of Utah’s San Juan County and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe territory, speak of the mill in hushed tones. Or not at all.

Most shake their heads and refer questions to the Badback family, one of the few willing to speak out.

The mill is a big economic driver in a county where nearly a fifth of the residents live at or below the federal poverty line.

Badback’s sister, Yolanda Badback, sat on a couch in her living room, eyes lowered. Her mother sat nearby, listening as Juniper played outside.

Yolanda Badback recalls multiple occasions when others who live in the area confronted her in public for speaking against the mill. Once, a parent said something at one of Juniper’s tee-ball games. Other times she’ll hear murmurs while she’s shopping.

“They’ll see me in the grocery store and say, ‘Oh, there’s the female with the big mouth,’” she said. “I just brush them off. I’m going to stand up for who I am and what is right for our community.”

She speaks of her childhood and her ancestors. They used to gather native teas and herbs in the area for medicinal and ceremonial uses. Sumac for basket weaving. Now the plants are all too dry to be of any use.

A drought is sweeping across the American southwest but plants in the area survived past droughts just fine, Yolanda Badback said.

Flowers bloom outside an abandoned home ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver PostFlowers bloom outside an abandoned home on the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Reservation on April 4, 2022, in White Mesa, Utah. White Mesa has around 300 residents.

She said her son suffers from kidney and liver problems and she worries about asthma, cancer and other illnesses from chemicals gathered at the mill and blown by the wind.

“You get a real bad chemical smell, combined with rust or something like that,” she said.

Seeing a doctor is difficult and not everybody has insurance, she added.

The concerns extend far beyond White Mesa.

Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, who also lives on tribal lands in Towaoc, Colorado, about 80 miles away, said she also worries about what the wind blows her way.

Lopez-Whiteskunk’s son lives in White Mesa and she said three of his six children suffer from respiratory problems, an increasingly common occurrence.

“We didn’t always have this and now it’s looking a little fishy when people are being diagnosed with cancer at earlier ages and higher instances of breathing issues,” Lopez-Whiteskunk, a former Ute Mountain Ute councilwoman, said.

Doctors near White Mesa declined to discuss the mill or refer the questions elsewhere.

Dr. John Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, said the concerns are valid. Exposure to contaminants might be relatively low but the consistency would be problematic and newborns or children who aren’t fully developed could suffer the worst effects.

Seven-year-old Juniper Link heads outside to ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Seven-year-old Juniper Link heads outside to play at his home on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation on April 5, 2022, in White Mesa, Utah.

Speaking generally about his background understanding of tailings, abandoned mills and other waste sites, Samet said animals in the area could also suffer if they’re eating contaminated plant life.

Badback recalls stories of hunting parties returning after killing deer and cutting them open to find green or otherwise tainted meat.

Currently drinking water in the area meets federal standards, according to Scott Clow, environmental programs director for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

“But just barely,” Clow said.

Beyond contamination, Yolanda Badback said she also worries about accidents and spills.

The White Mesa Mill opened in ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
The White Mesa Mill on April 4, 2022, in White Mesa, Utah.

Uranium, vanadium and alternative feeds

The mill’s rectangular white buildings stand out above the desert sands. Scores of blue plastic barrels, piled two high, sit behind a fenced-off area. They contain vanadium, an element that can be used to make steel.

Near the blue barrels sit fewer black ones. Those contain uranium. Yellow signs with red markings stand out along the fencing, warning of radioactivity. A larger sign stands in front of the mill.

The site opened in 1980 with a projected lifespan of 15 years, according to an environmental report prepared for Energy Fuels in 1978. But Moore, the company spokesman, said its life was extended because the demand for the mill’s products remains.

The mill takes in ore containing uranium from across the country and uses a chemical process to separate the element from the rock. The end result is a uranium-rich powder which can be used as fuel for nuclear reactors.

Because the process isn’t perfectly efficient, waste leftover still contains some uranium as well as compounds used in the refining process itself.

Each tailing pond can hold about 2 million tons of the byproduct, Moore said. Since it opened, the mill has produced about 40 million pounds of uranium, completely filling two tailing ponds, which are now sealed off. Three other ponds are currently in use. Tailing ponds are used for companies to more safely collect and manage their waste streams. They’re filled with water to prevent wind from blowing tailings off site.

The White Mesa Mill opened in ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
The White Mesa Mill site is seen from the air on April 4, 2022, in White Mesa, Utah. A flight for aerial photography was provided by EcoFlight.

In recent years the mill has started to accept what are called alternative feeds, which contain lower traces of uranium than typical ore.

One source comes from Colorado’s Moffat Tunnel, a railroad tunnel cutting through the Front Range and across the Continental Divide. Groundwater containing naturally occurring uranium and other metals seeps through the tunnel, for which the Union Pacific Railroad Company is responsible.

Water from the tunnel must be treated and cleaned before it can be emptied into the nearby Fraser River, Erin Garcia, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said.

Waste left over from that treatment process would normally go to a specialized dumping site, licensed and regulated to care for such hazardous materials, said Utah state Rep. Joel Briscoe. But now companies can hand it over to the White Mesa Mill at half the cost.

Briscoe said the program allows the facility to operate as a cheaper –and less safe — way for companies to discard toxic waste.

Moore said the company isn’t operating as a less-expensive disposal site. Rather, the alternative feed program is a way for the mill to extract uranium even in tiny amounts.

“We’re taking stuff that would otherwise be thrown away and putting it to good use,” he said. “Isn’t that what recycling is?”

Representatives for Union Pacific did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.

Colorado officials have no control over where the company takes its waste so long as it’s going to a licensed facility, CDPHE spokeswoman Laura Dixon said.

And the White Mesa Mill is licensed.

Other sources of alternative feeds come from Canada, Estonia and Japan, Moore said.

The site also produces vanadium, which can be used to make steel, and rare earth elements like neodymium, which are used to make magnets and critical for the production of batteries, wind turbines and electric vehicles, Moore said.

The White Mesa Mill opened in ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
A worker at the White Mesa Mill site on April 4, 2022, in White Mesa, Utah.

The mill is poised to ramp up production on all fronts, Moore said.

As Russia, a major global uranium exporter, continues its invasion of Ukraine, American lawmakers are calling for higher levels of energy independence. Moore added that major American and European automakers have approached Energy Fuels, interested in using their rare earth products for electric vehicle production.

Over the next five years the company could hire another 100 people to its existing 65 and pour up to $300 million into the mill to expand its operation, Moore said.

“Almost certainly leaking”

Renowned for its natural beauty and resources, southeast Utah also bears a complicated history with the mining industry.

Just a mile west of the White Mesa Mill sits the embattled Bears Ears National Monument, full of iconic landmarks and sacred indigenous sites.

Flying overhead in a six-seat Cessna 210 that belongs to Eco-Flight, an Aspen-based environmental nonprofit, Tim Peterson of the Grand Canyon Trust, points to everything he can name.

For each cliff dwelling, ceremonial kiva, butte and mesa, Peterson spots places where companies dragged anchors across the land to clear it of foliage, abandoned uranium mines and old oil and gas operations.

The White Mesa Mill underscores the contrast. It’s an economic driver for the region and nationally strategic facility but also a place that has been repeatedly cited for environmental violations.

Peterson mentions two of the mill’s three open tailing ponds. They’re all supposed to be covered by water to block radon emissions but only one is.

The other two have massive dry patches, soil colored green, yellow, red and black. Crystalized compounds.

The White Mesa Mill opened in ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Tailing ponds at the White Mesa Mill site on April 4, 2022, in White Mesa, Utah. A flight for aerial photography was provided by EcoFlight.

Last year the Environmental Protection Agency cited the mill for violating the Clean Air Act by leaving the pond uncovered. The exposed materials emit ten times more radon than those covered by water, the agency said in a December 2021 “unacceptability notice.”

With its 2021 notice, the EPA prohibited the mill from accepting waste from Superfund sites, the country’s most contaminated areas.

The EPA’s actions came as a surprise to mill officials, Moore said.

In 2019 the mill asked the agency to allow it to drain portions of its tailing ponds so it could process the waste once more to capture elements it missed the first time around, Moore said. The EPA gave the green light, he said.

That was when the agency was controlled by former President Donald Trump’s appointees. During his term, Trump reduced the size of Bears Ears by more than 85%, cutting protections from more than a million acres of land in the area.

After President Joe Biden took over in 2021, he restored the size of Bears Ears, once more protecting the land, and he appointed new officials to the EPA who promised to restore protections dropped under the previous administration.

Moore said mill officials began refilling the dried ponds in April, injecting 300 gallons of water a minute into them. At that rate the 2-million-ton-capacity ponds should be filled in several months, he said.

To date, the mill has been cited for dumping pollutants into the state’s waters in 1999 but it was also cited in 2006 for failing to correct “groundwater discharge violations,” and for violating the state’s groundwater quality standards.

Other violations amount to improperly posted signs or warnings. But the mill also repeatedly failed to provide a variety of reports or groundwater samples.

The White Mesa Mill opened in ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
The White Mesa Mill site on April 4, 2022, in White Mesa, Utah.

Data collected by the mill shows that many of the site’s dozens of monitoring wells consistently test above state limits for compounds including uranium, selenium, nitrates, chlorides, sulfates, nickel, cadmium and beryllium.

Some of those samples turn up compounds at levels many times acceptable limits with spikes especially noted in uranium concentrations at multiple wells.

Moore said limits set by the state are intentionally low and serve as a warning system for potential problems in the future.

But Dr. Johnnye Lewis, director and founder of the University of New Mexico’s Community Environmental Health Program, said the limits might actually be too lenient.

Limits typically regulate individual compounds, Lewis said, but in tailing ponds those compounds accumulate into a “nasty mix of metals,” which could make them more dangerous, Lewis said. Plus those limits are often set with lobbying and input from companies like Energy Fuels, weakening them.

“The regulatory process is never based just on public health,” Lewis said.

Still, Moore said none of the high levels have been directly linked to the mill’s operations. He said instead they’re caused by naturally occurring compounds or those left behind by other companies or mining operations that scattered the area.

“The mill was built in 1980 and there was a lot of activity out here before that,” Moore said.

Lewis is skeptical of that claim, as is Mathew Campen, who also teaches as a professor of the University of New Mexico’s College of Pharmacy and its Cancer Center.

Some of the uranium spikes are coming from wells directly between tailing ponds, Campen noted. And the levels appear to be worsening year after year, he said.

“It’s hard to argue that it isn’t from the tailings,” Campen said.

The newer tailing ponds have leaked in the past, “which prompted significant repairs,” according to a 2015 study commissioned by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. So leaks in the older ponds are “almost certainly occurring,” the report indicated.

The White Mesa Mill opened in ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
The White Mesa Mill site on April 4, 2022, in White Mesa, Utah.

In February the director of Utah’s Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control, Douglas Hansen, wrote to Ute Mountain Ute officials acknowledging groundwater contamination but not a connection to the mill.

The mill is in compliance with the state’s groundwater monitoring requirements, Hansen wrote.

If the mill is in compliance it’s because state regulators keep increasing acceptable limits, despite repeated violations, said Clow, the tribe’s environmental programs director.

“I have been studying this for 26 years and haven’t seen this acceleration before,” Clow said.

Despite the tribe expressing concerns about the elevated levels, state regulators relaxed their standards further in 2020, allowing for higher levels of uranium, selenium, cadmium and manganese.

Clow said the tribe strongly opposed the change.

Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control spokeswoman Ashley Sumner said in an email that the current limits are determined based on “background levels of each contaminant of concern.”

“We have worked diligently to partner with the Tribe and address their concerns surrounding the Mill, and will continue to ensure they have a voice and a seat at the table in matters critical to their community,” Sumner said.

Arlyssia Sells, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Arlyssia Sells, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Air Quality Technician, uses scrap wood to build a structure to shade a new air quality monitor she installed on April 4, 2022, in White Mesa, Utah.

Lewis questioned why state regulators would further relax environmental standards if existing contamination already exceeds acceptable limits.

“What has changed to make people feel all of a sudden that the limits don’t need to be adhered to?” Lewis said. “If you have legacy contamination at a site, why is that a reason to say ‘Okay, now we can add more to it.’”

“That’s logic I can’t buy,” Lewis said.

And the site isn’t built appropriately to handle compounds beyond its originally planned use, Peterson said.

“The place was not built as a low-level radioactive waste site,” said Briscoe, the Utah state representative. “It’s just morphed into that through regulatory sleight of hand.”

Questions of what to do next vary. The Badbacks say they want the mill shut down immediately. Briscoe said it should at least be regulated better.

Doctors Campen, Lewis and Samet say the compounds and their possible effects on the health of residents should at the very least be studied further.

The mill should also work harder to alleviate concerns from the community, Campen and Lewis said.

The small Ute Mountain Ute community ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
The small Ute Mountain Ute community of White Mesa, Utah on April 4, 2022.

Moore said Energy Fuels recently created a foundation that could spread millions of dollars around the area and maybe even help build a water treatment plant for the area.

“We’re not going away, the White Mesa community isn’t going away,” Moore said. “Why don’t they stop fighting us all the time and we could work together?”

There’s an obvious need for the compounds the mill produces, Lewis acknowledged. But the “million dollar question” is how to produce them safely and part of the answer lies in companies like Energy Fuels partnering with the local community.

For families like the Badbacks, however, the trust appears to be broken with the state and the mill. They live on edge, worried about the water that flows through their pipes and the air that blows past their home.

Yolanda Badback recalled a new set of pajamas her great nephew Juniper wore one night when they went to watch a movie. She turned off the lights and panicked as she saw green bones glowing in the dark.

She now laughs timidly about the incident, explaining that the pajamas glowed in the dark. She still asked him never to wear them again.

Trai Bass, 12, hits a baseball ...
RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
Trai Bass, 12, hits a baseball he tossed into the air as he plays alone at the baseball field on the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Reservation on April 4, 2022, in White Mesa, Utah.