San Juan County • When Mark Chalmers began working in the uranium industry in the 1970s, robust regulations on radioactive material were just starting to emerge in the United States.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was established in 1975 after its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, failed to protect workers and the environment from harmful radiation.
“Nobody cared back then,” Chalmers said of the lack of regulations in the mid-20th century. “It just didn’t matter.”
The president and CEO of the uranium company Energy Fuels started his career with Union Carbide as a mine leasor in 1976. He remembers fishing near the company’s mill in Uravan, Colo., which processed uranium and vanadium from 1936 to 1984 before it became a Superfund cleanup site.
“The water above [the mill] on the San Miguel River was beautiful, pristine,” he said. “You go a mile down the other side, and it was just green. … It was insanity.”
Energy Fuels’ mining and milling operations in San Juan County have long drawn criticism from tribal leaders, Indigenous activists and environmental groups who fear continued uranium production carries environmental and public health consequences. Their concerns have increased in volume and frequency in recent months.
This is because Energy Fuels announced its White Mesa Mill near Blanding, the last conventional uranium mill in the country, is importing radioactive material from abroad, beginning to produce rare earth metals and is currently processing tailings from abandoned mines on the Navajo Nation. The company is also likely to benefit from recent federal legislation that sets aside $75 million to create a stockpile of domestically-mined uranium.
Together, the developments have given Utah’s uranium industry new life. Chalmers — in a presentation to the San Juan County Commission and a series of interviews with The Salt Lake Tribune — acknowledged the dangers of uranium mining methods used during the Cold War but emphasized subsequent developments in regulatory standards and uranium processing technologies.
A toxic legacy
Chalmers worked in uranium mines near La Sal, Utah, in the 1980s, and said many miners who began their careers a couple of decades before him, including members of the Navajo Nation from San Juan County, have since died from cancer.
“This is something that I have a long history with and a lot of heartbreak … because of my own personal experiences,” he said.
The deaths weren’t isolated to the mines. In the four decades after the closure of a uranium mill in Monticello in 1960, residents of the small town developed lung and stomach cancers at up to twice the normal rate, according to one study, including 24 leukemia deaths, 77 serious respiratory diseases and a total of 407 cancers by 2006.
On the Navajo Nation, hundreds of abandoned uranium mines have yet to see any cleanup and uranium contamination remains an issue in unregulated water sources throughout the region.
Chalmers — who has worked in the industry for more than 40 years, on uranium projects in the United States, Australia and southern Africa — has seen laws shift to create the far more stringent regulatory systems in place today.
“It’s a different world we live in,” he said. “There’s completely different systems in place: the monitoring, the designs. … And it’s a great thing you can’t [pollute freely] anymore.”
Energy Fuels, headquartered in Colorado and incorporated in Canada, owns the country’s last conventional uranium mill (near Blanding) as well as uranium mining operations in Utah, Wyoming, Arizona and Texas. With around 50 Utah employees, the company is among the largest private employers in rural San Juan County, even after laying off a third of its workforce last year.
The company has faced legal challenges from Native American tribes and environmental groups. And while many anti-nuclear activists acknowledge technology and regulations have improved over the last four decades, critics, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s Environmental Programs Department, point out the White Mesa Mill spans the gulf between the under-regulated past and the current industry best practices, which have not yet been subjected to the scrutiny of hindsight.
Although members of the Ute Mountain Ute community of White Mesa, which is located five miles from the mill, have expressed health concerns about the facility since it was constructed, Chalmers points to the company’s record of environmental compliance with the state.
“If we’re polluting, we shouldn’t be allowed to operate,” Chalmers told the San Juan County Commission.
In the six years leading up to Energy Fuels’ purchase of the White Mesa Mill from Denison Mines in 2012, the facility was cited for violations 33 times by the Utah Division of Environmental Quality and was fined more than $100,000. But under Energy Fuels’ ownership, violations have declined dramatically, with only one citation since 2013.
As uranium production in the United States has all but disappeared over the last several decades, Energy Fuels has found ways to adapt. For many years, it generated the majority of its revenue at White Mesa from the processing of alternate feed — uranium-bearing materials that are often classified as radioactive waste if they are not run through a permitted uranium mill like White Mesa to extract yellowcake that can be used in nuclear power plants.
Energy Fuels hasn’t sold any of the yellowcake it’s produced for several years and has 700,000 pounds of the material at the mill, according to an analysis of its financial statements by KUER.
The company recently started producing rare earth metals at the facility and is currently planning to process radioactive monazite sands from Georgia. Chalmers hopes the move will, over the next few years, make his company the country’s largest producer of rare earth metals, which are used in numerous technology applications such as wind turbines, vehicles, smart phones and computers.
Some opponents of the mill, such as the Grand Canyon Trust and former employees of the facility, have raised concerns about indefinitely extending its operations. An environmental report from 1979 noted that the mill was only projected to have a 15-year lifespan. But instead of shutting down in the 1990s, it has remained in operation throughout the same time period as Chalmers’ career, and still relies on outdated features like tailings cells with a aging, single-layer plastic liner.
“The [liners] were so old, they started cracking,” said Phillip Rentz, a member of the Navajo Nation from the Aneth Chapter who helped build the mill in 1980 and then worked on and off at the facility from 1997 to 2014.
“One time they told us to fix them, to patch them back up,” he continued. “You can’t do it. Once you touch it, it starts running from you just like [a crack in] glass. We did the best we could, but it wasn’t repaired. … I know there’s leaks through it.”
Chalmers said there is no evidence that the older cells are leaking into the aquifer, adding that the mill and state conduct extensive monitoring. And the facility has evolved over the years to include newer triple-lined containment ponds with advanced leak-detection and prevention capabilities that are designed to last between 200 and 1,000 years.
“I am committed to make additional investment in the facility,” Chalmers said, “to come up with better outcomes — not outcomes that I’m forced to do by the state or forced to by the government — but I’m committed to doing things more than is required looking to the future.”
Rentz, 69, said that he participated in activities under previous mill owners that he fears could lead to contamination in years to come, even with the improvements, including the processing of radioactive material and equipment from a facility in Texas.
“Texas trash is what we used to call it,” he said. “They used to put it underground — dig a big old trench and just bury it. It had liners in it, but … the pipes have sharp edges and they were just pushed in with a loader.”
Fifty-five-gallon drums of contaminated material were also buried directly in trenches over a decade ago, according to Rentz.
“You’d wonder, isn’t there a place they can take this stuff other than White Mesa?” he said. “There was already a lot of concern about it safetywise and healthwise. But when you’re working there, you have a different mind. You don’t want to say anything. You’d get yourself in trouble saying something like that. You just have to go along with whatever they do.”
When whistleblowers did speak up about safety concerns at the facility, Rentz said they were fired, though those incidents predated Energy Fuels’ purchase of the mill.
Rentz’s father and uncles, who worked in the uranium mines in the 1950s, died young. One of his uncles was crushed to death in a mine near Dove Creek, Colo., at the age of 32, leaving behind four children. But it was only after Retnz was laid off from the mill in 2014 that he began to worry about his own exposure. “Working there isn’t worth it for your health,” he said.
Abandoned mine cleanup
Energy Fuels sees the White Mesa Mill as a solution to the abandoned mines where many members of the Navajo Nation worked during the Cold War, and the company has already begun processing low-level radioactive tailings from two sites within the Navajo Nation.
Although an agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency, Navajo Nation and Energy Fuels could be lucrative for the company, Chalmers said he’s most interested in helping find a solution to the contaminated sites.
“If the last thing I did in my career was help clean up the Navajo Nation in a responsible way that gets it done [quickly],” Chalmers said, “that would be the accomplishment that I would be satisfied with.”
“There is ample money available, and our White Mesa Mill can receive and recycle cleanup material versus having it buried onsite on tribal lands, an option that may not be available for many years, if ever,” he added. “This would also be a wonderful job and economic development opportunity for the Navajo.”
Chalmers bristles at charges of environmental racism against his company and emphasizes that his uranium work around the world has often involved working alongside Indigenous people. Roughly half of the 50 employees currently working at the mill are Native American, according to Energy Fuels.
In an email to The Salt Lake Tribune, several phone interviews and at his presentation to the San Juan County Commission meeting last month, Chalmers referenced a Yei Be Cheii rug he hired a Diné (Navajo) weaver to make for him while he was working at the La Sal mine in 1980 as further defense against those charges.
“This is one of my most prized possessions and one that I have looked at daily for most of 40 years,” he said. “When someone is accusing me of not caring about Navajo or Indigenous people it is hard to not take this personally.”
But for Angelo Baca (Hopi/Diné), cultural resources coordinator for the Indigenous-led group Utah Diné Bikéyah, that defense doesn’t hold water.
The ownership of and appreciation for a handwoven rug “doesn’t indicate an extraordinary ability to be empathetic, sympathetic or culturally competent,” Baca said, noting that artists, mine workers and the landscape in southeast Utah have all been exploited by Western economic practices. “If [Chalmers] truly cares, he should learn what the Yei Be Cheii rug means and understand that what uranium represents is the opposite of that: life, safety, health, balance and beauty — or Hozhó.”
San Juan County Commissioners Willie Grayeyes and Kenneth Maryboy, both members of the Navajo Nation, expressed skepticism at a meeting last month about Energy Fuels’ plans to import radioactive material from Estonia, Japan and the Navajo Nation to San Juan County and referred to the history of radioactive contamination in the region.
“[Groundwater contamination] is a deep concern for me,” Grayeyes said. “Life and safety is the bottom line. … Over seven generations, … what can we do to not damage or impact ... the health and safety of those generations?”
Chalmers argued that focusing on past contamination will not only limit opportunities in economically depressed San Juan County, but will only add more delays to the cleanup of the abandoned mines on the Navajo Nation.
“As the largest private employer in the county,” Chalmers said, “we want to create jobs that will provide a future for the young people in the county … in this green, rare earth, new job area.”
Rentz, who is on the board of Utah Diné Bikéyah, acknowledged that worker safety standards improved greatly while he worked at White Mesa, but he still worries about the health of current employees and others.
“When I used to work at the mill, I didn’t mind,” said Rentz. “Now thinking back on it, [I oppose the mill’s continued operation] for the sake of my people, the health of my people. Yes, there’s going to be contamination. Yes, there’s going to be people dying from there. Yes, there’s going to be dust flying out to the White Mesa village.”
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.