As Utahns protest police brutality and racism against black people, the wheels of environmental racism are turning in southeastern Utah. The company that owns the White Mesa uranium mill has applied to import radioactive waste from a metals-processing facility in the European nation of Estonia.
If Utah regulators sign off, hundreds of tons of radioactive waste would travel across the Atlantic Ocean, and across the country, to the White Mesa uranium mill, in the backyard of our Ute Mountain Ute relatives on their reservation in White Mesa, east of Bears Ears National Monument.
The company would run the waste through its mill, extract what little uranium it contains (less than half of 1 percent) and dump the remains into pits, where they will remain continually.
The White Mesa Mill already stockpiles ore and low-level radioactive wastes (called “alternate feeds”); if not adequately covered, they could blow off-site. Radioactive and toxic air pollutants from the mill travel with the wind, including radon, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide.
There are grave concerns of water contamination. Not to mention rightful anxieties about the cumulative detrimental impacts and unanswered questions that arise along the many transportation routes for radioactive waste which, here in Utah, run mostly through rural areas — places that may not have the resources to respond to a radioactive accident, should one occur. Remember, there have been radioactive spills from trucks headed to the mill in the past.
I know from personal experience the poisonous legacy of uranium. I grew up being unknowingly exposed to uranium tailings at a former uranium mill in Tuba City, on the Navajo Nation. Indigenous homelands are often considered sacrifice zones, and we, the indigenous peoples, are not seen or heard. Our tribal communities continue to live with the permanent radioactive wastes left behind by uranium companies without our consent.
My relatives in the White Mesa Ute community, whose drinking-water aquifer lies below an already contaminated shallow groundwater aquifer beneath the mill’s waste pits, will bear the brunt of radioactive contaminants from the White Mesa Mill. The White Mesa Concerned Community group has been organizing for years for the closure and cleanup of the White Mesa Mill. Each year they hold a protest walk, canceled this year due to COVID-19. Some tribal members don’t go outside anymore because of the toxic smell, and fears of contamination grow with each new truck hauling radioactive material to the mill.
What are the cumulative impacts of being exposed to radioactive contaminants over decades? White Mesa, like so many tribal communities, has been asking for extensive studies to establish baselines and measure the long-term impacts, but who is paying attention? In Utah, and around the country, our most vulnerable, such as indigenous communities and communities of color, experience the worst pollution because of systemic racism, which separates us and suppresses our voices.
The desecration of indigenous cultural landscapes by uranium has left scars on the land and the health of all living things who continue to be exposed. Rather than accepting radioactive waste from around the globe, it’s time we come together to call for accountability and transparency from industries that pollute our communities.
The consequences of mining, milling and waste are burdens we will all carry for generations. As our communities work to heal, we continue to face nuclear colonialism, but we will never stop fighting. The Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control must reject this application to accept radioactive waste from Estonia.
Talia Boyd is the Cultural Landscapes Program manager for the Grand Canyon Trust. She is Diné.