Talia Boyd: Who is really listening to uranium-impacted communities?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Energy Fuels Resources, which operates the only conventional uranium mill in the United States near Blanding, in San Juan County, Utah, June 24, 2020. The plant applied for a permit to reprocess 660 tons of radioactive powder stored at the Silmet rare metals plant in SillamŠe, Estonia, more than 5,000 miles away, for its uranium content in 2020.

As our communities struggle through a global pandemic, the company that owns the White Mesa uranium mill continues to disregard the voices of those of us most impacted by the uranium industry’s pollution with rhetoric of new, safer technology.

Newer does not equal safer. Conventional uranium mills still pose risks and are not exempt from accidents; this is true of the White Mesa Mill, which processes not just uranium ore, but low-level radioactive waste.

Many of our communities know firsthand the adverse impacts from uranium mining and milling. Uranium companies often claim that they can clean groundwater and return it to pre-mining conditions, but when has this ever been done? So it is not surprising that a uranium company CEO is claiming he cares for Indigenous peoples by owning a handwoven Diné rug; his gross façade truly shows how out-of-touch he is with tribal communities and what Native peoples stand for as the original stewards of this land.

I was born and raised on the Diné Nation. Every day on my way to school I passed the Tuba City Disposal Site, an abandoned uranium mill on the Navajo Nation. For years the mill sat unfenced, and with no signs warning of radioactive pollution. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I learned what the uranium mill was and about the powerful, invisible radioactive pollution it was emitting.

My family then moved to Churchrock, New Mexico, home of the largest radioactive spill in U.S. history to date, also on the Navajo Nation. Our communities were never told of the detrimental impacts. We have lost many relatives and friends to various cancers and other health disparities. And many of us live with the fear of someday getting cancer. We don’t know how much radioactive contamination we were and continue to be exposed to.

The Diné and many of our Indigenous relatives know the true cost of uranium; our very lives and our land have been insidiously exploited by uranium companies and the government. We know the permanent damage radioactive contaminants can do to the land, air, water and human health. Tribal communities bear most of the brunt of the nuclear fuel chain, and we are being pitted against each other when uranium companies transport their waste between our homelands.

Many Diné leaders and activists have expressed that we do not want the waste from Navajo abandoned uranium mines to be transported to the White Mesa Mill next to our Ute Mountain Ute relatives and east of Bears Ears National Monument. The White Mesa Mill directly threatens our Ute Mountain Ute relatives and sits atop the Navajo Aquifer; we all share deep concerns about water contamination.

The White Mesa Ute community’s drinking-water aquifer lies below an already contaminated shallow groundwater aquifer beneath the mill’s waste pits. Native homelands are often considered sacrifice zones, and we Native peoples are often defending our human rights and our ancestral homelands from corporate and outside interests.

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. Many impacted communities are asking for studies to measure the long-term cumulative impacts, yet we are not being heard. And the company that owns the mill has the audacity to claim it cares about the livelihoods of Native peoples because it hired a few dozen Native workers, when it has been poisoning us from the very minute it decided to set up shop in our homelands.

With a new administration that acknowledges environmental justice, we may finally have real dialogue on the matter.

Talia Boyd is the Cultural Landscapes Program manager for the Grand Canyon Trust. She is Diné.

Talia Boyd is the Cultural Landscapes Program manager for the Grand Canyon Trust. She is Diné.