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    Conservationists watch uranium industry as Trump aims to strengthen it

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    Uranium processing tanks at White Mesa Mill south of Blanding. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

    The Trump administration released a report Thursday, April 23 designed to prop up the uranium industry by providing direct government support for ore production in San Juan County. The White Mesa Mill near Blanding is the last conventional uranium mill in the United States, and the Four Corners area is home to mines that have been shut down due to lack of demand.

    The report brought acclaim from industry leaders and criticism from conservation groups and Native American tribal leaders.

    The report was written by a working group that President Donald Trump created in July with a directive to support national security interests. “America has lost its competitive global position as the world leader in nuclear energy to state-owned enterprises, notably Russia and China,” said a statement in the report.

    Critics fear for Trump’s rollbacks of environmental regulations and possible harm to the environment and water resources.

    Most of the fuel used in U.S. nuclear power plants is imported from abroad, and Trump’s proposed budget for 2021 sets aside $150 million to create a stockpile of domestically mined uranium, which the report says will “directly support the operation of at least two U.S. uranium mines,” according to a story in the Salt Lake Tribune.

    Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said it is not known which uranium mines will be the first beneficiaries of the government stockpile program.

    Energy Fuels, which operates White Mesa Mill south of Blanding and a handful of permitted but non-operational mines in San Juan County, was pleased with the Trump plan. CEO Mark Chalmers said in an email that his company was an “obvious candidate to supply U.S. uranium requirements.” He added, “We are extremely pleased that the U.S. government has expressed such a strong commitment to supporting domestic uranium mining and nuclear fuel capabilities.”

    In a dueling email, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., called the report “absurd” and a “massive industry giveaway.” Grijalva called the report “a roadmap for giving the uranium mining industry everything it wants without any scrutiny. If these recommendations are followed, we’ll pay a terrible environmental and public health price – and there won’t be any public discussion about whether we need to change course.”

    The Tribune noted that the U.S. military already has a stockpile of uranium large enough to produce nuclear weapons through the 2040s and to fuel Navy nuclear reactors into the 2050s, according to the Department of Energy.

    Earlier this month, Energy Fuels co-wrote a letter to Trump with another uranium company, Ur-Energy, requesting “immediate relief” and arguing that the coronavirus pandemic has driven the domestic uranium industry to “the cusp of complete collapse.”

    The company had been struggling even before the outbreak of COVID-19, however. According to financial information on its website, Energy Fuels posted a net loss of $28.4 million over the first nine months of 2019. In February, it laid off a third of its workforce in San Juan County, where it is among the largest private employers, according to the Tribune.

    Brian Somers, president of the Utah Mining Association, said the recommendations would help reverse that trend. “Utah has some of the most significant uranium reserves in the U.S.,” he said, adding the state “could see the rapid creation of a substantial number of high-paying mining and milling jobs as the federal government begins to implement its strategy.”

    Conservation groups are particularly concerned with the report’s proposal to “expand access to uranium deposits on federal lands” and to streamline permitting processes. Sarah Fields of the San Juan County-based group Uranium Watch said those recommendations are unnecessary given the number of mines that are already permitted. Energy Fuels owns the La Sal complex mine south of Moab, the Daneros Mine near Bears Ears National Monument, the Canyon Mine south of Grand Canyon National Park, and other resources in Wyoming and Texas.

    Residents of the Ute Mountain Ute community of White Mesa, which is located several miles south of Energy Fuels’ White Mesa Mill, have concerns about groundwater contamination around the mill site and how that might impact their drinking water aquifer.

    The Ute Mountain Ute Environmental Programs Department sent a letter to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality in January pointing to “overwhelming data showing significant trends of increasing groundwater contaminants and acidification” below the mill site and requesting the state conduct an investigation into the root causes of the contamination, the Tribune noted.

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