Trump administration plan could revive the uranium industry in Utah, raising concerns from conservationists

(Courtesy of Tim Peterson) The entrance to Energy Fuels' Daneros uranium mine near Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County, Utah.

Bluff • A long-anticipated Trump administration report aimed to “revive and strengthen the uranium mining industry” was released Thursday, and if its recommendations are implemented, it could provide direct government support for uranium production in San Juan County where the country’s last conventional uranium mill and several idled mines are located.

Uranium companies applauded the plan within hours of its release while numerous conservation groups and Native American tribal leaders announced opposition. Critics cited concerns over recommended rollbacks of environmental regulations and argued a revival of uranium mining could damage environmental and water resources.

The report, which was written by a working group that President Donald Trump created in July, emphasizes its plan was formulated primarily 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,” it states.

The vast majority of 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.”

On a press call Thursday, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said it had not yet been determined which two 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, applauded the recommendations, and CEO Mark Chalmers said his company was an “obvious candidate to supply U.S. uranium requirements.”

“We are extremely pleased that the U.S. government has expressed such a strong commitment to supporting domestic uranium mining and nuclear fuel capabilities,” Chalmers said in a statement.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., called the report “absurd” and a “massive industry giveaway.”

“[Thursday’s] report is a roadmap for giving the uranium mining industry everything it wants without any scrutiny,” Grijalva said in a statement. “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 U.S. military already has a stockpile of uranium large enough to produce nuclear weapons through the 2040s and 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 statements available on Energy Fuels’ website, the company 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.

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.”

Environmental concerns

The report also proposes 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 Daneros Mine near Bears Ears National Monument, the La Sal complex mine south of Moab and the Canyon Mine just south of Grand Canyon National Park, among other assets in Texas and Wyoming.

Residents of the Ute Mountain Ute community of White Mesa, which is located several miles south of Energy Fuels’ White Mesa Mill, have long worried that groundwater contamination around the mill site could worsen and eventually reach its 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 a thorough investigation into the root causes of the contamination.

(Chalmers called his company’s record of safety and environmental responsibility “exceptional” in Thursday’s statement, and in the past company officials have said water contamination was caused by a previous operator.)

Energy Fuels, which is incorporated in Canada and headquartered in Colorado, recently applied for permits to store more radioactive material in its impoundment ponds, including waste imported from the country of Estonia. A public comment period on the company’s application runs through June 5 with the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control.

Energy Fuels participated in a successful effort to lobby the Trump administration to reduce the size of Bear Ears National Monument in 2017, which sparked ongoing lawsuits from five Native American tribes and a coalition of environmental groups.

“Cutting Bears Ears National Monument by 85% in 2017 was bad enough, but now the Trump administration wants to roll back laws mandating tribal consultation and public involvement to help the uranium industry,” said Tim Peterson, Cultural Landscapes Program Director for the Grand Canyon Trust.

“It’s appalling that following the president’s illegal attempts to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments … they now propose using taxpayer funds to prop up this toxic industry with a legacy of pollution that Native communities are still struggling with today,” added Dan Hartinger, the Wilderness Society’s national monuments campaign director.

Tommy Rock, a Diné (Navajo) environmental scientist who studies uranium impacts on groundwater, said there are about 15,000 abandoned mines across the western United States from the last uranium boom that have yet to see any significant cleanup.

“There is still an issue of lack of water infrastructure on Navajo Nation,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune in July, referring to the roughly 30% of reservation households that lack running water, “so there are people that use unregulated water sources for human [and livestock] consumption,” including sources contaminated with uranium decades ago.

There are more than 500 abandoned uranium mines, mostly from the Cold War era, on the Navajo Nation alone, which have long caused serious health problems for local residents.

“The federal government wants to subsidize this industry to the tune of millions of dollars when you still have hundreds of mines that have not been reclaimed,” Fields said. “That’s what the money should be going to rather than some ill-advised uranium procurement program or changes in the regulations.”

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 by clicking here.