Residents hold spiritual walk against the White Mesa Uranium Mill

The mill is transitioning to refining rare earths as well as uranium, which residents say makes them sick.

(Alastair Lee Bitsóí | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters march to close the White Mesa Mill on October 9, 2021.

Mounds of uranium ore sit outside the processing facility at the White Mesa Mill compound, considered the only conventional uranium mill in America. When the strong winds come, nearby residents fear the powdery ore moves with the wind.

Mill operators say an air monitoring system tracks any downwind emissions, but locals say the dust and tailings ponds emit radon, a leading case of lung cancer in the United States, and that the facility contributes to health problems.

Last week residents and activists marched, prayed and sang as part of the annual spiritual walk against the mill.

Walking alongside the shoulder of U.S. Highway 191 in the Ute Mountain Ute community of White Mesa last Saturday, Yolanda Badback and Thelma Whiskers, founders of White Mesa Concerned Community, and Regina Lopez Whiteskunk, all citizens of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, marched alongside banners and signs that read: “No Uranium: Protect Sacred Land,” “Water Is Life,” “Protect Sacred Nuchu Lands” and “No Strategic Uranium Reserve.”

Last year, the spiritual walk took a hiatus due to the ongoing pandemic and the death of Badback’s brother, who used to help her organize the protest walk.

At the end of their five-mile journey, just outside the entrance to the aging facility, the group broke into prayer and song.

The women, and other activists, addressed the crowd, talking about the need to stop the mining of uranium and the use of nuclear fuel by asking the region and the rest of Utah to stand by them against Energy Fuels, the company that has owned and operated the mill over the last decade.

“It’s hard to live in a community where you’re close to a mill that is contaminated,” Badback said. “That’s hard but we do it every day. We have survived through this whole thing and we’ll continue surviving until we get to close this or get it to get cleaned up.”

During a recent tour of the facility last month, investors, engineers, miners and executives from Energy Fuels talked about how the company is expanding the mill’s capabilities to process rare earth metals, elements that are critical to the manufacturing of high-tech products like phones.

Mark Chalmers, CEO of Energy Fuels, was traveling abroad and could not respond to a request for comment. Energy Fuels has previously said it is in compliance with all federal and state environmental standards and that the mill is not contaminating the air or groundwater. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has called for more monitoring around the site.

During the mill tour, Chalmers cited the rare earth processing and told The Tribune, “We’re rebranding San Juan County as the green energy, clean energy hub of Utah. Maybe the world.”

The facility processed its first shipment of radioactive monazite sands from the state of Georgia over the summer and produced a batch of rare earth carbonate, which is being exported to Estonia for further processing.

“We just have to be strong,” Whiskers told the crowd through a microphone. “Don’t let the white people run over you. We know you guys are fighting. Let’s keep that going. Let’s be strong.”

This year’s spiritual walk happened the day after President Joe Biden issued federal proclamations restoring the size of both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments. Both monuments were reduced under the Trump administration in part for natural resources, activists say, including the exploration of uranium deposits by the industry.

Energy Fuels’ lobbyists met with Trump administration officials in 2017 and asked for small reductions to the boundaries of Bears Ears. Energy Fuels provided The Tribune with a 2017 statement supporting the monument.

“Although we proposed some minor adjustments to the original boundaries of [Bears Ears national monument] that abutted some of our existing operations, those proposed adjustments were very minor and insignificant compared to the original size of [Bears Ears],” the statement said.

Tim Peterson, cultural landscapes director for the Grand Canyon Trust, one of many co-sponsors of the spiritual walk, said that the effort to close the White Mesa Uranium Mill is part of the same fight to protect Bears Ears. The fence line of the mill is directly adjacent to the boundary of the resized 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears.

“There seems to be a disconnect between the White House and the Department of Energy. On the one hand, the White House, the Biden administration professes to care about environmental justice and would like to take meaningful steps towards that,” Peterson said. “And on the other hand, the Department of Energy came to an Energy Fuels event and touted the mill as a clean, green type of thing without really considering the impacts that it has on the White Mesa community. I think that that’s a serious issue and that we need an all-government approach to environmental justice.”

Steve Bloch, legal director for Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said the restoration of Bears Ears National Monument under the Biden proclamation closes the door on the potential for new mining claims located in the larger Bears Ears. He said there are mining claims for uranium before the designation of Bears Ears National Monument under the Obama Administration in 2016.

“So that means that no one now is allowed to locate new uranium claims,” Bloch said. “However, there were a handful of claims that were located from February of 2018 through the summer of 2021″ under the Trump designation of Bears Ears.

One of those claims, he said, is the Easy Peasy Mine. “My understanding is that uranium mined from that claim is being trucked to the White Mesa Mill.” A spokesperson for Energy Fuels said the company has no connection to the mine.

Lopez Whiteskunk, who served as former co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and represented the Ute Mountain Ute, said the “real fight” is closing the White Mesa Uranium Mill forever.

“We celebrated [the Bears Ears’ announcement Friday], but today we fight,” she said. “As Indigenous people, that’s been our everyday. That’s been our everyday for our ancestors. It’s been everyday for our elders. It’s always a fight.”

After the Bears Ears restoration, Lopez Whiteskunk says the focus is now to “pick up the fight of the uranium processing mill here that will provide a threat to that fabulous landscape we fought so hard for.”

The call for action by these women inspired Silverton House Whitehorse, a citizen of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, of Towaoc, Colo., to participate in this year’s spiritual walk.

“This uranium mine, when you Google and you hear the stories of many other countries bringing their energy source here to be processed, affects the White Mesa community with the water that they drink,” he said. “The animals that drink the water, the animals that live here, the animals that provide the food for our community. It affects everything; every single part of our life is affected when one area is damaged.”

Correction Oct 22, 2021 • This story was corrected to clarify what rare earths are and to clarify White Mesa Mill’s location in reference to Bears Ears.

Oct 24, 2021 • This story was corrected with comments from Energy Fuels about their support of Bears Ears and clarifying the company doesn’t have a connection to the Easy Peasy Mine.