Mark Chalmers: White Mesa Mill is the answer to legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation

Who is the Grand Canyon Trust really fighting for?

In a recent commentary in The Salt Lake Tribune, a representative from the Grand Canyon Trust perpetuated numerous misleading claims about the White Mesa Mill that should be dismissed outright.

It baffles me why an organization that claims to safeguard the environment and support Indigenous communities advocates for actions that, if taken, would severely setback President Biden’s climate efforts, make America more dependent on nations like Russia and China, and halt operations at a modern facility that can immediately help address the Cold War legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation.

Critics of uranium mining and milling often point to issues from the 1950s and 1960s to support their dubious claims. The Grand Canyon Trust’s primary argument seems to be that the White Mesa Mill in Utah should stop operating, not because of anything the mill is doing today, but due to unrelated, government-sponsored mining activities from decades ago.

Make no mistake – it is unacceptable that the legacy of government-sponsored uranium mining during the Cold War continues to plague the Navajo Nation today. Unfortunately, years have been spent studying this problem with little action to actually solve it. Many of the proposals under consideration to clean up historic contamination involve facilities that would take up to a decade, if not longer, to license and construct.

The White Mesa Mill is the only facility that is constructed, licensed and ready to responsibly accept and recycle cleanup material in accordance with 21st century regulations and operating standards. It stands to reason that these critics would perversely rather see the Navajo People continue to suffer from this Cold War legacy than see the White Mesa Mill continue to operate and help to address those issues.

The White Mesa Mill is an important contributor to the community and economy of southeast Utah. It is the largest private employer in San Juan County and half of the workforce is Native American. These workers and the facility they operate are key to the U.S. clean energy future and reducing our country’s dependence on nations like Russia and China.

As a side note, the Grand Canyon Trust is correct that the world is currently oversupplied with uranium. This is because nations like Russia and China heavily subsidize their industries to gain geopolitical advantage over the U.S., and the Grand Canyon Trust is playing right into their hands.

The mill is the only conventional uranium mill in the United States and is vital to producing the fuel needed to power nuclear energy plants across the country. These plants provide nearly 20% of U.S. electricity and 55% of our carbon-free power. If we’re serious about halting climate change and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, nuclear energy must be part of the solution, something that everyone from prominent climate scientists to President Biden acknowledges.

The United States is also taking steps to reduce our reliance on other countries for rare earth elements needed in the manufacture of clean energy and advanced technologies like electric vehicles, cell phones, computers and medical devices. China is the dominant supplier of rare earth elements, controlling about 90% of the global market. This leaves the United States in a vulnerable position, dependent on a country that often threatens to restrict rare earth exports to U.S. companies.

Today, the White Mesa Mill is helping to onshore the rare earth supply chain and will soon begin to safely and reliably process a domestically mined mineral called monazite. In 2021, the mill expects to produce an intermediate product containing enough rare earths to meet nearly 10% of current U.S. demand with a goal to eventually provide 50% of demand or even more. As a result, we have the opportunity to make southeast Utah a leader in the growing clean tech industry, creating significant new, high-paying jobs and investments in the community, the likes of which the region hasn’t seen in decades.

It’s clear that if the White Mesa Mill closed, it would severely set back President Biden’s climate, environmental justice, and American jobs agendas, and continue to delay the cleanup of Cold War-era uranium mining on the Navajo Nation. It makes one wonder — who is the Grand Canyon Trust really fighting for?

Mark Chalmers, President & CEO. Energy Fuels Resources (USA) Inc.

Mark Chalmers is president and CEO of Energy Fuels Resources (USA) Inc.