WHITE MESA, UTAH — If you blink on the drive between Blanding and Bluff, you might miss the White Mesa Ute Reservation. From Highway 191, this small community of 300 Ute Mountain Utes is marked by a gas station, a Mormon ward house and a smattering of trailer homes. But if your window is rolled down, you could catch a whiff of the Utes’ neighbor. When it’s running, the International Uranium Corporation’s mill saturates the air with the stench of sulfur.
The mill — one of only two surviving uranium mills in the country — has switched to a controversial practice in order to stay alive in a depressed uranium market. Instead of processing uranium ore, which is not currently mined in the U.S. because prices are so low, the mill "recycles" mine tailings, contaminated soils and Manhattan Project waste — collectively known as "alternate feed" — to glean any remnants of uranium. It then sells the concentrated, purified uranium, called yellowcake, to nuclear power plants.
The leftover alternate feed, piled out in the open, uncovered, is nasty stuff. Dust sometimes blows off the piles, and the mill’s smokestacks and tailings piles emit radon and thoron gases, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. Although those emissions meet national air-quality standards, the toxins still pose long-term risks of cancer and respiratory disease, according to the U.S. Department of Health.
For 53-year-old Ute Mountain Ute Thelma Whiskers, who lives in a small house separated from the mill by only a four-mile stretch of cheatgrass and juniper trees, it’s galling that the mill was built on top of more than 200 Ute, Navajo and Anasazi ceremonial and burial sites.
But even more galling is the fact that the mill may be nothing more than a poorly disguised waste dump. The mill extracts only minute amounts of uranium from the alternate feed, and makes its money from charging recycling fees, not producing uranium. "The uranium values in the feed material are very low," says Loren Morton, a hydrogeologist with the Utah Division of Radiation Control. "It’s the recycling fee that makes the economics (viable)."
Drumming up business
The Energy Fuels Corporation opened the White Mesa Mill in 1980, and, floundering in bankruptcy, sold it to the International Uranium Corporation in 1997. With the uranium industry hanging by a thread, IUC turned to alternate feed for new business, touting its recycling services as an environmentally superior alternative to direct disposal. Some yellowcake is extracted, but most of the material winds up in the mill’s outdoor disposal cells.
In 1997, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted the company an amendment to its license so it could accept uranium tailings from a former mill in Tonawanda, New York. In 1998, the state of Utah appealed that amendment, arguing that the NRC should set a minimum concentration of uranium content for a waste source in order for it to be deemed alternate feed.
The state lost the appeal, and International Uranium raked in more than $4 million in fees for processing the Tonawanda material, which contained less than $600,000 worth of uranium, according to the state. The mill has to gain a license amendment for every new contract, but NRC regulation remains lax: Anything with trace amounts of uranium can be considered alternate feed. And since 1997, International Uranium has processed more than 300,000 tons of radioactive waste from California, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Illinois and Canada.
The mill produces about 1 pound of uranium for every ton of alternate feed it processes, according to Ken Miyoshi, the manager of the White Mesa Mill. It takes years to stockpile enough alternate feed for the mill to operate: The mill was on standby from 1999 to 2002, and then ran from June 2002 to May 2003.
Miyoshi says processing alternate feed is a way to keep the mill running until uranium prices rebound, and that the company pumps money into the local community through jobs and taxes. But the economic benefits for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe are insignificant, says Tom Rice, the tribe’s environmental director. Only two or three of the 50 workers needed by the mill when it’s running are Utes, and the temporary jobs only pay about $8 an hour. And, he says, the mill’s proximity limits the tribe’s ability to create a tourist economy.
State tries to take control
Now, International Uranium wants permission from the NRC to accept about 5,000 tons of uranium — blended to reduce its radioactivity — from a U.S. nuclear weapons complex in Tennessee. The company is also courting the Department of Energy to get a contract for the 13 million-ton tailings pile from the defunct Atlas Uranium Mill in Moab. The Moab tailings would be mixed with water and slurried to the White Mesa Mill through an 85-mile-long pipeline.
Miyoshi says constructing the pipeline and moving the Moab tailings will provide jobs for several years. But the bulk of the tailings are slated for direct disposal — not recycling — in the mill’s tailings cells, with International Uranium retaining the right to process some of the slurry solution, depending on uranium content. A draft environmental impact statement, which will evaluate four different disposal sites for the Moab tailings, is due out in April. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has asked that White Mesa be removed from the list of alternatives in consideration of health and cultural impacts.
The mill’s opponents — a growing coalition of Utes, Navajos, environmentalists and local business owners — may soon get a stronger voice in how the facility is regulated. The Utah government, which has criticized the operation in the past, is on track to take over regulation of the state’s uranium mills from the NRC this spring. While the state plans to impose stricter groundwater monitoring standards at White Mesa, it will probably continue the NRC’s weak policy on alternate feed. But state control would allow more public access.
The Utah Board of Radiation Control’s meetings are open to the public and anyone can get on the agenda by submitting a request in advance. "Under the NRC process," says Bill Sinclair, deputy director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, "it is very difficult to become a factor in their decision making."
"This facility has to close sooner or later," says Bradley Angel, executive director of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Greenaction and a part-time Moab resident. "If the government won’t do it, then the people are going to have to do it for them."
The author writes from Salt Lake City, Utah.
Greenaction Bradley Angel, 415-248-5010, www.greenaction.org
International Uranium Corporation 303-628-7798, www.intluranium.com
Utah Division of Radiation Control 801-536-4250, www.radiationcontrol.utah.gov.