Don’t let this uranium mill repeat history

The White Mesa Mill’s license is up for renewal under the Trump administration.


Stephanie Malin is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the op ed service of High Country News. She is the author of The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice and is an assistant professor at Colorado State University.

Tucked inside the Trump administration’s proposed budget is $703 million in funding for nuclear weapons. Although that's about 30 percent less than last year, you would hardly know it here in the heart of Utah’s canyon country, where the nation’s last operating conventional uranium mill — the White Mesa Mill — is forging ahead.

The mill sits on an arid mesa just a few miles east of the newly established Bears Ears National Monument, with Monument Valley to the south and Canyonlands National Park to the north, and is owned by a subsidiary of the Canadian energy giant Energy Fuels Resources, which also owns and operates uranium mines around the Grand Canyon. Today, despite a litany of risks, Energy Fuels Resources is asking Utah to renew the mill’s license, which expired in 2007 and has been in “timely renewal” ever since.

Energy Fuels has influential friends, including high-powered lobbyists Andrew Wheeler, who worked on the Trump campaign and was involved with transition planning, and Mary Bono, the former California congresswoman and widow of Sonny Bono. So far, Utah seems to be welcoming the permit renewal as an economic boon for rural San Juan County, though the mill is staunchly opposed by its nearest neighbors — the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and White Mesa residents who are mostly tribal members. Few have forgotten what happened to two towns and surrounding communities after uranium mills there were shuttered.

The White Mesa mill, built in 1980, is in Blanding, Utah, and extracts uranium and vanadium.

When the Monticello uranium mill closed, the environmental mess it left behind became two federal Superfund sites, one of which encompassed the entire community of Monticello. A $250 million taxpayer-funded cleanup effort ensued, even as cancers, respiratory problems, reproductive issues, allergies and birth defects plagued the residents of this small uranium town. In decades earlier, child and adolescent leukemia clusters appeared in the community. Residents suspected these ailments were linked to long-term uranium exposure, and a 2007 Utah Department of Health study found the mill to be a “plausible” cause of elevated rates of certain cancers.

In both Moab and Monticello, uranium mills have permanently contaminated the groundwater and poisoned surface water, both scarce resources in the arid West. Adding insult to injury, the Moab mill owner declared bankruptcy and stuck taxpayers with the cleanup bill. The site still isn’t completely cleaned up, and with cuts to the Department of Energy’s budget, cleanup could be delayed indefinitely. Why, despite this history of mismanagement just up the road from White Mesa, do state regulators seem content to let history repeat itself?

Already, the problems that have emerged at the White Mesa Mill look a lot like the problems plaguing Monticello and Moab. The shallow groundwater aquifer underneath the mill is contaminated with heavy metals, and the bond posted by the company to fund cleanup is laughably low — about $22 million, which is less than a fifth of professional cleanup-cost estimates.

If Utah regulators fail to stand up for the public interest now, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, southeastern Utahns, and ultimately American taxpayers risk paying a high price. But nowhere are the risks higher than in White Mesa. The tribal community is immediately down-gradient and often downwind from the mill. Community members describe finding rainbow-colored meat when butchering animals hunted near the mill site. When the wind blew from the direction of the mill, people kept their children inside, reporting that they smelled strong chemical odors.

In both 2012 and 2013, the mill’s own reports show that it emitted more radon — a cancer-causing air pollutant — than the Clean Air Act allows. And in 2015, 2016 and 2017, radioactive spills occurred as materials were transported to the mill for processing. Numerous cases of cancer have been reported in White Mesa, although no epidemiological studies have begun.

Still, Utah regulators seem unconvinced that the risks are real, and now, the state has opened the mill’s license renewal to public comment. With Energy Fuels lobbying in Utah and in Washington, D.C., Americans have only until July 31, 2017, to urge regulators to stop continued environmental injustice at White Mesa. Email comments to [email protected] with the subject line: “Public Comment on White Mesa RML Renewal” or submit comments by mail to Scott Anderson, Director, Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control, P.O. Box 144880, Salt Lake City, UT 84114-4850. 

At the very least, state regulators should require Energy Fuels to post a substantial bond to guarantee that the company pays for the mill’s cleanup. It’s time to stop asking taxpayers to pay for an industry’s toxic mess. 

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