White Mesa uranium mill in San Juan County lays off a third of its workforce

(Dom Smith | EcoFlight) This undated aerial photo shows the White Mesa uranium mill's evaporation ponds.

The largest private employer in San Juan County, Energy Fuels Inc., laid off nearly a third of its workforce this week as uranium producers continue to wait for a Trump administration decision that could boost domestic mining of the mineral.

Twenty-four of the company’s 79 employees in southeast Utah lost their jobs, with the bulk of the cuts taking place at the White Mesa Mill, the last conventional uranium mill still operating in the United States.

Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, gave a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives on Tuesday in support of his constituents in San Juan County, which is the poorest in the state. He noted there are “fewer economic opportunities” in rural areas, and said he was committed to addressing the issue.

“Rural Utahns deserve the same quality of life that their urban friends have, including access to broadband, quality medical care, and good paying jobs,” Curtis said. “While it has been a difficult week for many in San Juan County, I know the community will be resilient and persevere.”

The mill, located near Ute Mountain Ute tribal lands south of Blanding, was built in the early 1980s and purchased by Energy Fuels in 2012. Due to low global uranium prices, the mill primarily processes “alternative feed,” or low grade radioactive waste from across the country, as well as vanadium.

“We are needing to conserve our financial resources as commodity prices have remained below the cost of production,” Curtis Moore, an executive at the company, said with regard to the layoffs.

Energy Fuels, which is incorporated in Canada and headquartered in Colorado, also operates several mines in San Juan County: the Daneros Mine and the La Sal uranium mine complex. Both of those operations — along with the company’s controversial Canyon Mine near Grand Canyon National Park — are currently idled.

Both Moore and Curtis blamed foreign subsidies and state-run companies abroad for undercutting American uranium companies with “non-free market” production.

Roughly 20% of U.S. electricity is generated by nuclear power, but in recent years over 92% of uranium fuel used in nuclear reactors has been imported from other countries, including Canada, Australia, Russia and Kazakhstan. Moore said U.S. companies are projected to produce almost no uranium in 2020.

Last year, Energy Fuels and Ur-Energy, another uranium company, petitioned the Trump administration to require U.S. nuclear power plants to source one fifth of their uranium fuel from domestic sources, arguing that an over-reliance on foreign suppliers posed a national security risk.

(Courtesy of Rep. John Curtis) Congressman John Curtis, R-Utah, shakes the hand of a White Mesa uranium mill employee in September 2019.

The petition was opposed by American nuclear power producers and environmental groups, and President Donald Trump rejected that request in July. Trump instead created a U.S. Nuclear Fuels Working Group to provide him with recommendations for “reviving and expanding” the uranium mining industry, with a deadline set for Oct. 15 and later extended to Nov. 15.

“Nothing has happened yet,” Moore said. “We still believe the administration will do something, and we have been trying to keep as many people employed as possible – for as long as possible. However, we just don’t know when (or if) the administration will act. So, we’ve been forced to make some difficult decisions, including these recent layoffs.”

According to financial statements available on Energy Fuels’ website, the company posted a net loss of $28.4 million over the first nine months of 2019.

Stephanie Malin, an associate professor of sociology at Colorado State University and author of “The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice," said uranium prices tend to be particularly volatile due to both market and political forces, which can have a big impact on rural economies that have adapted to uranium jobs.

“Some people take a position in San Juan County where they really support this notion of private uranium development ... because of this, I would say, false promise that it’s going to provide sustainable economic or employment opportunities," she said. "There’s just no evidence that that will happen, primarily because we’re talking about a resource that is part of these global commodity markets, and it’s inherently prone to boom and bust cycles.”

Some residents of San Juan County have long advocated that the mill be shut down. Members of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe who live in the nearby town of White Mesa hold annual protest marches against the operation and fear groundwater contamination could worsen as the single-layer plastic liners age under several of the mill’s containment ponds.

The company was criticized by Native American tribal leaders and environmental groups in 2017 when it hired lobbyists to pressure the Trump administration to reduce the size of the then 1.35-million acre Bears Ears National Monument. Trump cut over 1 million acres from the monument in late 2017 and was sued by five tribes with ancestral ties to the area, including the Ute Mountain Ute. That case has yet to be resolved.

With its mines idle, the company is currently looking to bring in revenue by importing radioactive waste from abroad to process as “alternative feed.” In April, Energy Fuels requested to amend its license with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality in order to accept waste uranium material from Estonia, which would be transported to Utah and milled at White Mesa. The amendment will likely be opened to public comment during the next few months.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.