In late December, as Congress debated how much to spend on COVID-19 relief for Americans struggling to make ends meet, something else was flying under the radar that has serious implications for Utah’s clean water and public health.
In the same package that funded $600 stimulus checks hid a sizable handout for the uranium industry that could pad the pockets of Energy Fuels Resources, the uranium company that has already made millions by welcoming low-level radioactive waste to its White Mesa uranium mill in southeastern Utah.
Congress appropriated $75 million to start a “strategic uranium reserve.” This means using your taxpayer dollars to pay uranium companies above-market price for their product despite a flooded global uranium market that, since the 1980s, has seen little demand for additional lower-quality, and therefore higher-cost, U.S. uranium.
In the end, uranium companies only got half of what they’d hoped for in this budget. The figure was slashed after a Government Accountability Office report found that “DOE officials could not provide supporting data” to explain how the original $150 million budget proposal had been calculated.
If a government-funded uranium industry rings an ominous bell, that’s probably because the uranium business in the United States has always stood on the shoulders of the taxpayer. In the 1950s, the government paid out $10,000 bonuses for discovering the stuff, leading to a boom in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. But mining uranium comes at an even higher price than just tax dollars, and Indigenous communities like the Ute Mountain Ute, next door to the White Mesa Mill, are disproportionately the ones to pay it.
When called out, defenders of the uranium industry often resort to gaslighting. In a recent Tribune story, an Energy Fuels executive claimed that the company’s White Mesa uranium mill isn’t a threat to Indigenous communities. He held up his ownership of a Diné Yei Be Cheii rug as evidence that he takes it personally when he’s accused of not caring “about Navajo or Indigenous people.”
In 2016, a Utah environmental regulator — an employee of the state of Utah whose job was to protect Utah’s environment — instead defended Energy Fuels, saying that the Ute Mountain Ute community’s concerns about water contamination at the uranium mill amounted to “biting the hand that feeds.”
Never mind that the millions Energy Fuels has made processing radioactive waste and dumping the leftovers in the mill’s massive waste pits go into the company’s coffers, not the community’s.
Forging ahead with a strategic uranium reserve will mean more of the same. As contamination disproportionately impacts Indigenous communities, allowing a new form of government support would continue to disproportionately impact Indigenous people, once again without asking for the input of Indigenous communities.
New executive orders under the Biden administration and a new bill in Congress (the Environmental Justice Mapping and Data Collection Act of 2021) have at long last prioritized environmental justice — the equal right of all citizens to a healthy environment regardless of income or heritage. To do so, the president and Congress must recognize that uranium is an environmental-justice issue — one that cuts deeper for Indigenous communities across the United States.
The strategic uranium reserve has no place in Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. The uranium company that stands to benefit most from the subsidy, after all, is the same one that successfully lobbied the Trump administration to shrink Bears Ears National Monument.
Soon, we hope, Bears Ears will be restored, and that rather than repeating the environmentally racist mistakes of the past, the Biden administration will take time to learn from and support uranium-impacted Indigenous communities.
Amber Reimondo is the Energy Director at the Grand Canyon Trust.