Scott Williams: Gov. Herbert, Don’t let radioactive waste be your legacy

(Corey Robinson | Tribune file photo) Protesters from White Mesa, Utah, march against the White Mesa Mill, the last conventional uranium mill still operating in the U.S. May 14, 2017.

Energy Fuels, a Colorado-based business that owns the White Mesa Mill in Utah’s stunningly beautiful San Juan County, wants us to let a Canadian company, with operations in Estonia, ship hundreds of tons of the uranium-containing byproduct of their rare earth mineral processing operations to the mill site 5,000 miles away and just a few miles from Ute Mountain Ute tribal lands.

Estonia won’t approve a site to dispose of it in-country and the processing operations can’t resume until they move it off-site. But this waste is not Utah’s product and it’s not Utah’s problem.

While Energy Fuels calls this “recycling,” in reality, the company will be well-paid to accept this as radioactive waste. It contains only a nominal amount of uranium (up to 0.27% according to the company’s CEO), which can’t be completely extracted, and the other 99.73% of this radioactive material will be dumped into waste pits at the mill. This is the very same type of mill waste that is taking 25 years and $35 million to move away from the Colorado River near Moab.

So make no mistake: This isn’t recycling, it’s a waste disposal deal. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission loophole that calls this stuff “alternative feed” rather than waste is a distinction without a difference. And Utah’s iconic landscape will be stuck with its poisonous effects forever.

Every Utah governor since 1978 has risen to the challenge of an out-of-state carpetbagger wanting to make a buck off the state becoming a toxic dump for the rest of the U.S., and at times, for foreign countries.

Salt Lake City is becoming “one of the largest microwave ovens in the West.” — Gov. Scott Matheson,1978

“Nobody wants radioactive waste … the people have an absolute right to know what’s going on in our state and feel comfortable that we’re taking appropriate actions to ensure that the safety of our people is not compromised.” — Gov. Norman Bangerter,1989

“I will deploy every tool I can. We don’t produce this waste. We shouldn’t store it.” — Gov. Mike Leavitt, 2000

“The request to ship uranium mill tailings to White Mesa from Ohio and New York ... is but the beginning of hundreds of such similar sites and I think if we don’t stand up now the game is over. You can’t take two or three and say that’s all.” — Gov. Olene Walker, 2004

“I’ve stated consistently from the beginning of my term in office that Utah should not be a dumping ground for radioactive waste. This tower of radioactive waste is not created by Utahns and not wanted by Utahns.” — Gov. John Huntsman, 2007

The White Mesa Mill has had its share of safety issues that have threatened the health of the residents of the nearby Ute Mountain Ute community. Some of the disposal cells, which sit above critically important aquifers, have outdated liners.

A 2008 study by geologists at the University of Utah concluded that “this site is, therefore, susceptible to contamination due to tailings cell leakage, and must therefore be carefully monitored for such contamination.”

Furthermore, twice in the last five years, trucks on their way to White Mesa have spilled radioactive waste on Highway 191.

The image of Utah as a destination for tourism or business development, and the related economic benefits, are damaged by every headline about these various forms of radioactive waste, which remain poisonous for decades if not centuries, coming our way.

So please, Gov. Herbert, continue the vigilance of your five predecessors. Stick to the guns you yourself drew against Italian radioactive waste in 2010 when you said, “as governor, I have opposed, and I continue to oppose, the importation of foreign nuclear waste to Utah.”

As it says in Proverbs 13:22: “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children.” Your legacy as Governor, the international reputation of Utah as a place to visit and do business, and justice for the members of the Ute Mountain tribe are all at stake.

Don’t sell them off so that businesses in Colorado, Canada and Estonia can reap the profits.

Scott Williams

Scott Williams, M.D., is a pediatrician, former director of the Utah Department of Health, and currently the executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah).