The White Mesa Uranium Mill in San Juan County is seeking a new license and job contract this month through Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The permitting process — which includes several public comment opportunities — has generated increased attention from the mill’s opponents, who claim the operation endangers the local population and the entire region.
Those closest to the mill live in White Mesa, a town of primarily Native American residents from the Ute Mountain Ute tribe located about 6 miles south of Blanding.
“Our people are starting to come forward with how they feel about the mill,” said Yolanda Badback, of the tribal activist group White Mesa Concerned Community. “... A lot of people are learning from this mill now.”
Owned by the Colorado arm of Energy Fuels Inc., the White Mesa Uranium Mill is the last operating uranium mill in the United States, and has been processing ore since 1980.
Curtis Moore, Energy Fuels’ vice president of marketing and corporate development, said the White Mesa mill processes both conventional uranium ore and non-ore materials that have some amount of recoverable natural uranium.
Opponents to the project have dubbed the material “radioactive waste” but Energy Fuels calls it “alternate feed.”
Moore said the White Mesa Mill has processed alternate feed from sites across the United States for more than 20 years.
In addition to renewing the mill’s byproduct radioactive materials license and groundwater discharge permit this summer, Energy Fuels Resources is also requesting that Utah DEQ approve a new alternative feed contract for the site, allowing the plant to process material from a decommissioned uranium enrichment plan in Oklahoma.
“We believe this line of business is very beneficial, since we are recycling otherwise unusable materials into the fuel for clean, nuclear energy,” Moore said.
However, many who oppose the project — including Uranium Watch Executive Director Sarah Fields — say neither White Mesa Mill’s processing operations nor the nuclear industry it supports can be labeled “clean.”
“What’s clean about a nuclear power plant? It’s releasing all kinds of contaminants into the air and the water, from the mining, to the milling,” Fields said. “We still don’t have a solution for high level nuclear waste. ... Nothing’s clean about trucking this stuff or putting it on the railways and sending it one place or another.”
Badback says tribal members in White Mesa have long held similar concerns about the mill, sharing worries about air pollution and potential leaks from the mill’s large waste ponds.
According to Utah DEQ documents, violations dating back to 1999 have consistently plagued the White Mesa Mill, mainly pertaining to water quality and radiation.
In 2014, the Grand Canyon Trust sued Energy Fuels over alleged violations to the Clean Air Act regarding the mill’s 2012 radon emissions. That lawsuit is ongoing.
But Phil Goble at Utah DEQ said the mill has not faced a single violation with the state since 2013.
In 2004, when the state of Utah received authority from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to authorize the facility’s licenses, Goble said the White Mesa Mill began to turn around.
“We are a lot closer than the NRC so we’re able to have a better presence,” Goble said.
State regulators inspect the facility at least eight times per year, he said.
“Since we have taken over, we found a bunch of violations at the beginning, but it has improved significantly,” Goble said. “The presence we’ve had there has significantly improved operations.”
But the concerns of many local residents have not been alleviated since the state takeover. Badback said she has observed an increase in health issues, including asthma and cancer, among White Mesa community members.
“A lot of our teenagers never used to have health problems, and now they’re being diagnosed with asthma,” Badback said.
So far, no direct link has been proven between the community’s health concerns and the mill’s operations, but representatives from Greenaction for Health & Environmental Justice are calling for a community health survey to better understand those issues.
On May 13, in partnership with other environmental groups, White Mesa Concerned Community organized a rally and spiritual walk to express their concerns over the health and safety of their community. Some citizens are calling for the mill to be closed. According to participants in the event, the protest drew more than 100 people.
“Shutting it down would give us relief from all the stress we’re having right now about water contamination [and] ground contamination,” Badback said.
But Moore said any language regarding shutting down the White Mesa Mill also shuts down any conversation between local residents and Energy Fuels, Inc.
“If they were willing to acknowledge our right to exist, and not completely try to shut us down, we would be open to productive discussions,” Moore said.
The public is invited to submit comments to Utah DEQ. A public information meeting will be held at the Blanding Arts and Events Center, 639 West 100 South, on Thursday, June 15 from 5 to 7 p.m.
“We’ll take whatever comments we receive into consideration before we do the final license,” Goble said.
Written comments will be accepted through July 31. Comments can be mailed to P.O. Box 144880, Salt Lake City, UT 84114-4850 or emailed to email@example.com, with Public Comment on White Mesa RML Renewal as the subject line. Documents related to the White Mesa Uranium Mill license and permit renewals are available on the Utah DEQ website: deq.utah.gov/NewsNotices/notices/waste/index.htm#efr.