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Ethan Aumack: Here’s who the Grand Canyon Trust is really fighting for

(Corey Robinson | Tribune file photo) Thelma Whiskers of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe confronts officers outside the gates of the White Mesa Mill during a protest on May 14, 2017.

In a March 16 commentary to criticisms the Grand Canyon Trust raised about a new $75 million taxpayer-funded subsidy for the uranium industry, the CEO of Energy Fuels, Mark Chalmers, ends with a question that I’d like to answer: Who is the Grand Canyon Trust really fighting for?

Simply put: my children, yours, and the children of White Mesa, Utah, because we believe all Americans have the right to a healthy environment, regardless of heritage.

The Grand Canyon Trust believes in a clean energy transition that doesn’t perpetuate the environmental injustices of the past. We also believe in listening to Indigenous communities and supporting their priorities.

For too long, energy policies have disproportionately put Indigenous, poor and underserved communities in harm’s way. The voices of these communities have been overlooked by industry, politicians, and regulators.

This is true at Energy Fuels’ White Mesa Mill, located a few miles north and upgradient of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s White Mesa community, where the tribe’s concerns for the wellbeing of its citizens, including the community’s water, have been largely ignored. There is confirmed groundwater contamination beneath the mill, which Energy Fuels steadfastly downplays, even though monitoring wells around the mill have shown increasing pollution levels.

There’s no doubt that the uranium industry has poisoned communities in the past; at issue is what Energy Fuels is doing at its White Mesa Mill today.

Far from vital for our nuclear power plants, the mill is a small source of uranium that exacts an outsized price on the people of White Mesa. Designed in the late 1970s as a conventional uranium mill to process locally mined uranium ore over a limited project life of only 15-20 years, it has morphed into a low-cost destination for disposal of radioactive waste from around the world. This business has made the company millions and kept the mill running long past what the original planning documents projected.

This strategy — reinventing itself instead of cleaning up its mess — now involves rare-earth processing. Thanks to a quiet exchange of letters last year between Utah state regulators and Energy Fuels, the mill has a new line of business and a new lease on life, without any new permits, without serious government study, without any public debate, and without any thought about alternatives. How we should get rare-earth minerals in this country is a subject that presents exceedingly complex questions. But allowing a 40-year-old uranium mill to enter that business without serious public scrutiny is not the answer.

As a nation, we must listen to Indigenous communities. Instead of presuming that the White Mesa Mill is a “cure” for the injustices the uranium industry left behind on the Navajo Nation, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and their citizens should decide. Numerous Diné leaders oppose shipping abandoned-uranium-mine waste from the Navajo Nation to the mill, where it could put Ute Mountain Ute relatives at risk.

Rather than depositing taxpayer money into Energy Fuels’ accounts, a better idea would be to craft a plan for navigating and mitigating the technical and economic challenges that come with ethically sourcing our minerals. And investing tax dollars in those kind of innovative, sustainable, justice-oriented solutions is something the Grand Canyon Trust can get behind.

The Trust has a strong record of supporting Utah communities facing uranium contamination. It led advocacy efforts to remove millions of tons of uranium tailings the Atlas Mill left marinating in the Colorado River near Moab. It now stands fully behind the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s community of White Mesa, and the tribe’s efforts to protect its citizens from the environmental injustices inflicted by the White Mesa Mill.

Ethan Aumack | Executive Director, Grand Canyon Trust

Ethan Aumack is the executive director of the Grand Canyon Trust.

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