Utah uranium mill has accepted 700 million pounds of radioactive waste, according to a new report

Tribal representatives and politicians blasted the practice of storing and ‘recycling’ waste, euphemistically called ‘alternate feed,’ at the Energy Fuels facilities near Bears Ears.

(EcoFlight) White Mesa Mill as recently as September 2021. Liquid is meant to cover waste from Superfund sites which can emit radon, a radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer. This aerial image shows a portion of the site left dry and uncovered.

Energy Fuels Resources’ plant outside Blanding is often touted as the nation’s only operating uranium mill.

But for decades, the larger purpose of the mill has been to dispose of the waste from contaminated military and industrial sites for a fee, which has generated millions in profits for Energy Fuels at the expense of the environment and the Ute Mountain Ute tribal members who live nearby, according to the report titled “The Business of Radioactive Waste” released Tuesday by the Grand Canyon Trust.

According to the new report, the Utah facility is a poorly regulated radioactive-waste disposal site where 700 million pounds of material has been interred over the years just a few miles from the Native American community in San Juan County known as White Mesa.

Energy Fuels contests that it is not a “waste dump,” but is “recycling uranium-bearing materials.”

The mill sits five miles north of the Ute tribal community and just a mile east of Bears Ears National Monument, designated in 2016 to protect the cultural and natural resources that the mill now threatens, Rep. Raul Grijalva, R-Arizona, told reporters on a news call Tuesday hosted by the environmental group. Under the site runs a deep aquifer that nearby communities tap for drinking water.

“In an effort to extract as much profits as possible, corporations put communities and their public health and their clean water at risk,” said Grijalva, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. “These impacts will be felt most directly by communities of color, particularly tribal communities who call these lands home and have connections to these places, extending back through time.”

The report documents shipments of waste from 15 sites, including Midnite Mine, a Superfund site in eastern Washington and, most recently, up to 2,000 drums of radioactive powder from a rare-earth mineral processing plant in Estonia. In 2020, Utah regulators agreed to let Energy Fuels accept 135 tons of material from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency without undergoing any additional licensing.

“What we’re asking for is a level playing field,” said Tim Peterson, the Grand Canyon Trust’s cultural landscapes program director. “White Mesa mill is behaving as if it’s a low-level radioactive waste dump and it should be regulated like one.”

Energy Fuels dismissed the new report’s conclusions as “false and misleading,” maintaining that the facility operates according to the highest standards.

“The Mill is not a ‘waste dump,’” wrote company spokesman Curtis Moore in an email. “It is a world-leading facility that is setting an example of responsible sustainable operations. We are not aware of any facility in the world that can make these claims. There is only one ‘globe’ in ‘global warming,’ and everything we do to foster the responsible mining and recycling of valuable carbon-free energy resources helps us all achieve our global objective of combating climate change.”

Moore noted that the White Mesa mill has recovered 6 million pounds of uranium and 1.8 million pounds of vanadium from the material it processes. That much uranium packs the energy potential of enough coal to fill a line of train cars stretching from Los Angeles to New York and back again, he claimed.

“We are recycling uranium-bearing materials,” he wrote. “That is what recycling is — taking stuff that would otherwise be waste and turning it into something useful.”

What Moore refers to as recycling is the extraction of uranium from waste material, known as “alternate feed,” as opposed to mined ore. After processing the waste, Energy Fuels buries it onsite. Past decisions by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission have signed off on this practice and the state, since assuming oversight in 2004, has continued to allow it.

Tribal representatives insist Utah should put an end to the practice, clean up the site and ultimately close it.

“We need high-level reform,” said Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a former member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribal council. “They also need to be held responsible and accountable to the damage they have done.”

San Juan County Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy, a member of the nearby Navajo Tribe, said he is concerned the mill could contaminate groundwater that could migrate to the San Juan River, which flows through tribal lands. He argued such a facility would never have been allowed to operate near Salt Lake City’s white neighborhoods.

San Juan County’s Native American communities deserve nothing less. Every Labor Day, White Mesa has a Bear Dance that many of my community members participate in, and you can smell the cloud that comes from the mill,” he said. “Uranium and the mill represent environmental injustice that continues to be endured by the county’s Indigenous and low-income populations.”

The mill was established in the 1970s to process uranium ore extracted from small mines on the Colorado Plateau, whose uranium deposits are low grade and expensive to mine.

In the face of fluctuating prices and thin profit margins, the mill’s operators found other sources of revenue and turned to low-level waste that can be processed to yield trace amounts of uranium, according to the report.

“Three decades later, the mill continues to profit from accepting these wastes, extracting small amounts of uranium from them, and dumping the remains into its on-site waste ponds,” the report states. “In effect, the mill operates as a de-facto low-cost disposal site for radioactive waste; the alternate feed business earns the mill’s current owner $5 to $15 million per year.”

When it was first licensed, the mill’s plan was to operate for 15 years and then undergo reclamation, according to Peterson

“Now, more than 40 years have passed and it was still operating, and not one of the mill’s waste pits has been fully reclaimed,” he said. “It’s cheaper for polluters to send their waste to the mill than to a licensed low-level radioactive waste disposal facility. In the two examples we were able to find, it’s about half the cost to send it to the mill.”

The amount of uranium derived from this material is minute. The 135 tons of Japanese material headed to Utah, for example, would yield just 1,150 pounds of uranium, or 0.4% of the total.

But Moore rejected the notion that the material Energy Fuels takes is waste since it contains valuable minerals that can be recovered

“The tailings from processing alternate feed material ores is virtually the same as the tailings from processing any other ores,” he said. “They are ores like any other ores.”

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