WHITE MESA, Utah — Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and environmental organizations want to see the White Mesa uranium mill, located in San Juan County in Utah, shut down and are asking for the mill to be strictly regulated until that closure happens.
Primary concerns for the tribe and groups include contamination of the water, air pollution, psychological impact on nearby residents and long terms impacts of the mill.
The White Mesa uranium mill, which has operated for 40 years, is located on private land owned by Energy Fuels Inc. (EF), based out of Colorado. The mill and waste site is 2.5 miles from the White Mesa community.
Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Chairman Manuel Heart said during a recent news conference that a community water sample in White Mesa was grayish and smelled like boiled eggs.
“This is what we see on a daily basis,” he said.
Heart said contaminated water from the site could impact 30 states and seven tribes.
Heart is also concerned that if uranium waste is being trucked through its reservation that the Ute Mountain Ute should be informed by federal and state governments.
Malcolm Lehi, White Mesa representative for Ute Mountain Ute Tribe said they could smell the uranium or whatever the company was burning.
Raul Grijalva, U.S. Congressman from Arizona and chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, said this is a problem across the U.S. as people and clean water are at risk. He points out the site is one mile from Bears Ears National Monument.
“This is a clear example of environmental injustice. It’s profit at the expense of public health,” he said.
Grijalva said he will look into how much money it will cost to cleanup and regulate the site.
“This disproportionately falls on some communities,” he said.
Grijalva said it needs be codified into legislation that tribes need to be consulted regarding uranium mills or uranium waste. He added that because of the drought, water needs to be better protected from contamination.
“We need legislative and administrative fixes. We need increased legislation because it’s not there now,” he said.
Tim Peterson, cultural landscape director for the Grand Canyon Trust in Flagstaff, said the mill was intended to operate for 15 years, but in the 1990s EF turned the venture into a processing site for waste from uranium sites.
“The waste has kept them open,” he said estimating that the waste brings $5-$15 million into EF annually. Peterson said the site needs to be regulated like a low-level radioactive waste disposal site.
“Congress should step in and take action,” he said.
According to Peterson, the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) has not taken action.
While some believe it would take an act of Congress to close down the mill, Scott Clow, environmental program director for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said EFN is a private business and market forces could close it down at some point. Clow said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could make the site less profitable by not allowing EF to receive Superfund money.
“It’s about the almighty dollar,” he said.
Clow doesn’t see the site shutting down anytime soon. However, he said strict regulations could be placed on the site soon. Because of an agreement with the federal government, the state of Utah has the main regulatory oversight of the mill and waste site.
According to Clow, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has ongoing talks with Utah officials about the site. He said sometimes they agree and sometimes they don’t.
“We think they can do better,” he said.
Utah State Rep. Joe Briscoe said EFN essentially has a waste storage site without calling it that.
“We have made Energy Fuels a winner and many more losers,” he said.
According to Clow, talks with EF have been only between the attorneys because of the legal issues.
Clow said a few years back, this site took in waste from a reservation in Spokane, but the EPA does not allow them to take in that specific material anymore.
The EPA cited EF for non-compliance at the mill therefore they cannot currently receive money from the Superfund for cleanups. EF can appeal this decision.
Peterson said while the Navajo Nation government hasn’t taken a stance on this, officially, many Navajo citizens are concerned about it. The EPA is in the process of cleaning up 500 contaminated uranium sites on Navajo and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe wants to make sure that waste doesn’t come to White Mesa.
“Navajos understands the situation,” he said.
One Navajo group opposed to the mill and waste site is Haul No!, which is a volunteer Indigenous-led group collaborating with Indigenous communities, leaders, environmental organizations and community-based advocacy groups working to stop nuclear colonialism in the Southwest. The organization is headed by Leona Morgan, who is concerned about uranium transported through the Navajo Nation.
Clow said the mill and waste site has a significant psychological impact on tribal members because they can see the site from their homes and smell an acrid odor.
“The long term picture is that the tribe has lived on White Mesa forever and wants to continue to live here forever,” he said. “They ask why the mill can’t be moved.”
Clow said practically the mill cannot be moved, but neither can the tribe.
EF has posted a $20 million bond for reclamation when the site is closed, but that may not be enough to clean-up the site, according to Clow. He believes at some point they will likely dissolve and leave the cleanup funding to the taxpayers.
Clow said the groundwater is getting worse and the problem is accelerating across the site. He said in the 1990s there wasn’t much contamination. But 20 years later, the story is much different. He said a lot of the wells are contaminated, but the bond amount to clean-up the land is not increasing.
“Someday it will be up to us and the DOE (Department of Energy) will pay for it forever,” he said.
Clow compares it to the uranium sites at Mexican Hat and Shiprock, both on the Navajo reservation that need to be remediated.
“They are doing their best to keep it from hurting people, wildlife and the environment,” he said. “It’s sucking taxpayer dollars.”
Peterson has been fighting the mill and waste site since 2018 and he sees it as an environmental justice impact. He said if the mill operated as a waste site, it would have much stricter regulations and would not be placed near a population center. But Peterson said it is operating as a low level radioactive waste disposal site. He said the issue needs to be addressed by Congress.
Peterson said federal and state standards are not strong enough to regulate the site. Clow agrees.
“On paper it looks tough, but it’s not,” he said about the lack of regulatory enforcement.
Nuclear energy is part of President Joe Biden’s energy portfolio so some believe uranium mills are needed. Neither Clow nor Peterson agree with this.
Clow said the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has come out against using nuclear power as a strategy for climate change.
“This is the heartland of uranium extraction. Where do they want to put the waste? It’s all well and good if you live in the city, but if you’ve lost family members it’s a different story,” he said.