Indigenous activists speak out against plans to import radioactive material to southeast Utah

Residents complain of health problems and believe the environment is being damaged

(Corey Robinson | Tribune file photo) Protesters gather in White Mesa, Utah, on May 14, 2017, for a protest march against the White Mesa Mill, the last conventional uranium mill still operating in the United States.

When locations were chosen more than half a century ago for the dozens of uranium mills that dot the Four Corners landscape, one common factor was almost always considered: proximity to productive uranium mines.

The region’s best uranium deposits typically only contain a small percentage of the valuable radioactive mineral, and being able to process the material at a nearby mill was critical to saving on transportation costs.

For the last conventional uranium mill still operating in the United States, however, the business model has changed. San Juan County’s White Mesa Mill, which is owned by the Denver-based company Energy Fuels Resources, hasn’t processed ore from local mines in recent years. Instead, it has survived primarily by accepting uranium-bearing material from around the country and, more recently, as far away as Japan. State regulators are also considering an application from the company to import material from Estonia.

Members of the Ute Mountain Ute community of White Mesa, which is located three miles from the mill site, spoke out against the mill’s continued operation on Tuesday at an annual town hall event that was held virtually this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The event, which was sponsored by a coalition of 12 grassroots community groups and environmental organizations, featured presenters from across Indian Country who spoke about the legacy of uranium production and nuclear waste storage on Native Americans as well as the White Mesa Mill.

“The White Mesa Mill was originally designed to run for 15 years before being closed and cleaned up, but the mill is still in operation 40 years later,” said Talia Boyd, cultural landscapes program manager for the Grand Canyon Trust and a member of the Navajo Nation, who noted uranium production has had a disproportionate impact on Indigenous peoples. “Community members are concerned about public health impacts and contamination of land, air and water as well as the mill’s ongoing desecration of cultural and sacred sites.”

The mill has accepted radioactive material from the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, and Energy Fuels has expressed interest in processing tailings from the more than 500 abandoned uranium mines that have yet to be cleaned up on the Navajo Nation.

Scott Clow, environmental programs director for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said that such proposals address a real need to remediate contaminated sites on tribal lands, but that they also “pit tribes against tribes.”

“We all want those places to be cleaned up, but we don’t want it to go to White Mesa,” Clow said.

Thelma Whiskers and Michael Badback of the White Mesa Concerned Community group said emissions from the mill can be smelled in White Mesa on a regular basis, adding they believe the facility has had negative health impacts on local residents.

“Let’s just keep … fighting to not have [the mill] close to the reservation,” Whiskers said. “I care for the community members and the children and the grandchildren.”

Energy Fuels has repeatedly told The Salt Lake Tribune the mill is in compliance with all environmental regulations and both air and water quality are actively monitored, but Clow expressed concerns about the state’s repeated decision to relax compliance limits for certain contaminants present in the groundwater directly beneath the mill. The company has argued the contaminants, including chloroform and nitrate/chloride, are nonradioactive and originated with previous industrial activity on the site or are naturally occurring.

In an effort to better understand both the potential environmental and health impacts of the mill, Clow said the tribe has projects underway with both the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Two new monitoring wells were drilled this fall between the mill and the community with EPA funding in order to better track potential water quality changes, Clow said, and a branch of the CDC is helping the tribe plan epidemiological work in the White Mesa community that could provide more information about health concerns among residents.

Other speakers at the event addressed the legacy of uranium production elsewhere in Indian Country.

Taracita Keyanna of the Red Water Pond Road Community Association spoke about the 1979 Church Rock Spill on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, which remains the second-largest radioactive disaster in world history after the Chernobyl meltdown in the former Soviet Union.

“A lot of the land in our community has been disrupted and we can no longer use it [for livestock],” she said. “We can’t grow crops because the EPA has stated that if we grow crops we’ll be further exposed to uranium contamination. We can’t drink the water.”

Keyanna added the uranium contamination has had not only physical health consequences but has caused spiritual and mental health impacts as well, all of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“It feels like a prison,” Keyanna said. “We’re not only prisoners during this pandemic, but we’ve kind of always been prisoners [since] this uranium industry started in our community.”

Leona Morgan, co-founder of the Indigenous-led group Haul No!, which opposes Energy Fuels’ plans to mine for uranium near Grand Canyon National Park and haul ore across the Navajo Nation, encouraged meeting participants to oppose a separate proposal currently being considered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that could result in radioactive material being hauled from the Church Rock area to the White Mesa Mill for processing.

Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, called the mill’s activities near the Ute Mountain Ute land, like the mining and milling that took place on the Navajo Nation decades ago, an example of “environmental racism and environmental injustice.”

“It’s not just an individual human rights issue,” he said, addressing the residents of White Mesa. “It’s a collective rights issue for your people to live in a safe and healthy environment: your homeland.”

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.