On Aug. 5, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill filed first-degree felony charges, carrying sentences of up to life in prison, against seven Black Lives Matter protesters. What was their crime? Breaking five windows and splashing blood-red paint on the steps of the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office at a protest in early July.
Rather than face second-degree felony charges, which is typical for acts of vandalism, these seven BLM protesters were initially charged with felony in the first degree, a charge usually reserved for rape, murder and robbery. When Gill’s decision was challenged, he stated that “those charged allegedly caused more than $5,000 in damage and they worked in a group to cause that damage. That’s why what is normally a second-degree felony was bumped to a first-degree.”
After widespread public backlash, a special prosecutor who was brought in to handle the cases reduced the charges to second- and third-degree felonies for some defendants and misdemeanors for others. But Madalena McNeil, one of the protesters facing prosecution, responded, “I think we have to be clear about the fact that, clearly, the charges didn’t have to be that high in the first place.”
As a lifelong Utah resident and the founder of Utah Climate Advocates, an environmental justice organization at the University of Utah, I thought a lot about Gill’s initial ruling, what Utah’s leaders consider vandalism and how they choose to prosecute it. If we used Gill’s reasoning when looking at the history of environmental vandalism upon the White Mesa community within the Ute Mountain Ute reservation, for instance, some of our state’s corporations and leaders might face prison time as well.
The White Mesa Mill in southeastern Utah was built in 1980 with the intent to extract uranium yellowcake from ore to make nuclear fuel rods. But over time, the mill transitioned to accepting “alternate feed” materials, storing radioactive waste from across North America in its on-site containment ponds.
The mill has long been embroiled in legal battles over the soundness of the protective layers within these ponds. In the White Mesa community, groundwater contains elevated levels of chloroform, nitrates and heavy metals, which are linked to activities at the mill. A letter from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe early this year pointed out that reports from Energy Fuels Resources, the owners of the mine, “show progressive and alarming degradation of the quality of the shallow groundwater, with seven new exceedances of groundwater contaminant levels (GWCLs), lowering pH to more acidic conditions, and increasing trends in many monitored toxic metals and other parameters.”
Now, Energy Fuels Resources is seeking permission from the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control to import and process new “alternate feed” materials. Aaron Paul, a staff attorney with the Grand Canyon Trust, pointed out, “One of those materials is a waste generated in the Republic of Estonia whose disposal in Estonia that country’s government has disallowed for health and safety reasons.”
The White Mesa community’s backyard is becoming an international dumping ground.
When a handful of protesters stain the marble steps of a city building to call attention to police brutality, they are characterized as a “gang.” When a corporation or government entity vandalizes the air, water and land of a community of color, they are “job creators,” dodging penalties and reaping profits.
Fortunately, there are avenues that the public can use to build transparency and accountability. The owners of the White Mesa Mill are still waiting for approval for their request to import new waste, so we can continue to voice public concerns through commentary and emails to Ty L. Howard, the director of the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
To support protesters arrested by the Salt Lake City Police Department, donations can be made online, and Black Lives Matter Utah offers a host of ways to support the movement in our state. We cannot afford to remain silent on these critical issues.
Piper Christian is a lifelong Utah resident and co-founder of both the Utah Youth Environmental Summit and Utah Climate Advocates, organizations that work to educate and engage high school and college students in environmental justice issues and grassroots organizing.