Uranium mining leads to energy independence, lawmakers say. Native Utahns call it ‘genocide.’

The industry says that mining is much safer than it used to be.

(Alastair Lee Bitsóí | The Salt Lake Tribune) Southeastern Utah residents and anti-uranium activists march, pray and sing as part of the annual spiritual walk in protest of the White Mesa Mill, the only functioning uranium mill in the country, in 2021.

Davina Smith’s grandfather came home from a uranium mine every evening covered in yellow dirt.

That’s what her mother told her. Smith herself remembers suffering from sudden, inexplicable headaches as a child after bathing in water she later learned was contaminated with uranium runoff. Smith told The Salt Lake Tribune that when her family’s sheep and goats gave birth, the animals often had unexplained extra limbs.

Smith hopes to represent District 69 in the Utah House — a seat currently held by Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, who is running for governor. As the only Democratic candidate in the race so far, Smith will face Doug Heaton, Lynn Jackson or Logan Monson in her fight for the seat.

Both Smith and Tara Benally are Diné residents of San Juan County — Utah’s largest and poorest county — which is also home to the White Mesa Mill, the only functioning uranium mill in the country.

For both women, their earliest experiences with the effects of uranium — which is among the minerals that lawmakers want to incentivize mining companies to search for in Utah — were their relatives dying from cancer.

The industry says that mining is much safer than it used to be. Utah lawmakers believe that mining benefits rural Utah.

Sen. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, and Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, have sponsored SB75: Mineral Amendments, a measure that offers mining companies tax credits for mineral exploration activities. The lawmakers say that mining in Utah is crucial for the state’s energy production, U.S. national security and rural economies.

“Rural communities would benefit from this, as economic development occurs with the development of these resources,” Albrecht recently told the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee.

“Mining provides the highest average wages in rural counties that I represent,” Owens — whose district covers Beaver, Garfield, Juab, Kane, Millard, Piute, Sanpete, Sevier, Utah and Wayne counties — said recently on the Senate floor. “Increasing mineral production in the state is a great economic development tool.”

But Smith and Benally say that this proposed legislation prioritizes private interests over public health, the environment and rural residents.

“It’s a form of genocide. Regardless of how they word it on the floor, it’s still genocide. No matter how you want to word it, it’s still impacting us,” Benally said. “We’re still losing our loved ones. And to have [lawmakers] not see that and understand that is just completely inhumane.”

Mining incentives in the millions

SB75, sponsored by Owens, incentivizes mining exploration and development. If a business successfully identifies and produces a “metalliferous mineral,” the company would be eligible for up to a $20 million tax credit for mineral exploration expenditures.

Over 30 minerals would qualify for this tax credit, according to Utah Code, including aluminum, copper, gold, iron, lead, lithium, silicon and uranium.

That tax credit is even richer — up to $30 million — for exploration activities that lead to the successful production of minerals that the United States currently imports more than half of from other countries.

These include arsenic, cesium, gallium, indium, manganese, rubidium, scandium, strontium, columbium, tantalum, yttrium, rare earth metals, titanium, bismuth, platinum, antimony, zinc, chromium, silver, cobalt, rhenium, vanadium, nickel, germanium, selenium and tungsten.

Brian Somers, president of the Utah Mining Association, emphasized that the proposed tax credits for exploration activities are post-performance; in other words, tax credits would be awarded only to companies that successfully produce minerals in Utah.

“These are minerals that we need for so many different aspects of our modern economy and for our national and economic security,” Somers told The Tribune. “If they’re not going to be produced here, they’ll be produced somewhere else. Usually, that means they’ll be produced in countries that don’t have any of these environmental or labor regulations.

Owens agreed that passing this bill would reduce U.S. dependence on other nations for minerals, especially countries such as China and Russia that aren’t U.S. allies.

“This is a bill to incentivize companies to come and research and see what minerals we have,” Owens said, “and the possibility of extracting those in large part for not just state defense but national security.”

There are some exceptions. Exploration activities for potash, salt, gravel, sand, oil, gas and coal would not be eligible for tax credits under this bill. The proposed tax credits would also not apply to companies looking to extract minerals in or around the Great Salt Lake.

The proposed tax credits would apply to producing a new mineral at an existing mine or producing minerals from secondary sources, like waste streams or tailing piles.

At the end of the bill, the Legislature requests that the federal government consult with Utah before implementing a federal designation — like a national monument or a wilderness area — on land that could contain critical mineral deposits.

“Let mining industries know before they invest their lifetimes of money in some places,” Owens said, referring to uranium exploration activities undertaken in Arizona, where there is now a new national monument. “If that’s your intent, at least give [the mining industry] that heads-up.”

In August 2023, President Joe Biden created Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument on 917,000 acres around the Grand Canyon. Much of the land is home to the richest U.S. uranium deposits, mining companies say, but is now off-limits to mining.

Carmen ValDez, a policy associate with the nonprofit Healthy Environment Alliance (HEAL) of Utah, said that this part of the bill undermines community voices.

“Federal land designations are not surprises,” she said. “They don’t come randomly out of the blue. Community members, organizations, tribal members and local communities advocate for these protections and designations long before they go to the federal government.”

‘When these bills are being written, do they think of the community members?’

For Smith, economic development and national security aren’t good enough reasons to expand mining — despite lawmakers’ arguments that locals will ultimately benefit.

“When a state legislator says ‘local,’ it’s really selective who they make that comment toward,” Smith said. “Because it’s not including Indigenous input, as we are also locals, but most importantly have been here since time immemorial.

“When I heard about this bill, all I kept thinking about was the communities such as the one I grew up in and seeing and hearing the frustrations of what family members have gone through,” she continued. “When these bills are being written, do they think of the community members in our Native towns and areas?”

Jackson, who could oppose Smith for the Utah House seat representing District 69, wrote to The Tribune that he “would be 100% in support of the legislation,” which he believes would offset the costs of mineral exploration and increasing regulatory requirements.

Monson, another one of Smith’s potential political adversaries this fall, agreed.

“I support the responsible mining of uranium in Utah as a strategic move towards energy independence, economic growth, and the advancement of clean energy technologies,” he wrote in an email to The Tribune. “This approach aligns with our commitment to national security, job creation, and the pursuit of energy solutions that contribute to a cleaner and more sustainable future for our country and is something we can do here at home.”

Doug Heaton, another Republican candidate for the District 69 seat, did not immediately respond to The Tribune’s request for comment about SB75.

ValDez said that HEAL Utah would like to see the bill amended to include community consultation and consent before mining exploration begins.

“We still need these minerals,” she said, “but the protection of our miners and the communities that are around these industries need to be protected.”

Somers said that protection is already in place, noting that mining is subject to layers of federal and state oversight, which include public participation.

“A lot of this opposition has nothing to do with any particular mining operation; it’s just a general antipathy to mining,” he said. “The same way that mine operators are subjected to this rigorous public process, if members of the public are concerned about any particular aspect of a mining operation, they should bring those concerns forward, but they should be substantive and pertinent to a particular operation.”

SB75 passed the Senate last month, where Sen. Nate Blouin, D-Salt Lake, was the sole senator to vote against the proposal. Later, members of the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee favorably recommended the bill; only Rep. Gay Lynn Bennion, D-Cottonwood Heights, opposed it.

The bill is headed to the House floor, where Albrecht will present it.