Kenneth Maryboy: The White Mesa uranium mill is a bad neighbor to the Ute community

Energy Fuels claims of creating green industry does not match the facts.

(EcoFlight) White Mesa Mill as recently as September 2021. Liquid is meant to cover waste from Superfund sites which can emit radon, a radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer. This aerial image shows a portion of the site left dry and uncovered.

Imagine your neighbors were always hollering and carrying on, having wild parties, making it hard to breathe with their campfire smoke, and giving you headaches day and night. Imagine the police came and told them to knock it off. Then suppose that months went by, and parties next door only grew louder and wilder.

Our neighbors at Energy Fuels’ White Mesa uranium mill next to Bears Ears and just up the road from the White Mesa Ute Community are putting us through a similar ordeal, except that their party could give us cancer.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, since at least June 2020, the mill has been violating the Clean Air Act. One of the mill’s liquid waste pits is partly uncovered, exposing radioactive materials to the open air. The EPA estimated that 10 times the cancer-causing radon emissions are coming off the uncovered portion of the pit than the part that’s underwater.

The violation was discovered last summer when Ute Mountain Ute Tribal employees flew over the mill with a group called EcoFlight. Alarmed, they notified the state of Utah and EPA. By the end of 2021, both the state and EPA told Energy Fuels the company was in violation or suspected of violations.

Since then, it appears that Energy Fuels has done little to correct the problem. There was even less liquid covering the waste pit in early April when a Ute Mountain Ute Tribal member and employee flew over the mill again.

Meanwhile, Energy Fuels is promoting the mill as a clean energy, green jobs facility with an impeccable environmental record. Their talk doesn’t match their actions, and we’ve had enough.

Historically, uranium regulators have shown little regard for Native people. Premature deaths, cancers, chronic illnesses and impacts to our physical and spiritual health persist. Hauling drinking water remains a way of life because the uranium industry has contaminated many of our water sources. This is not a problem of the past; the White Mesa Mill continues this disrespect.

When the mill opened in 1980, the then-owners said it would operate for about 15 years, then close and clean up. But by the 1990s, the mill was accepting radioactive waste from toxic cleanup sites across the country.

Now, the mill is getting into the rare earth element (REE) processing business more than 25 years after it was supposed to be gone. The mill is turning radioactive sands from Georgia into a mixed REE carbonate. This incomplete product must be shipped all the way to Estonia to be separated into individual elements that industries can actually use. The mill also claims to have done REE separation on site, and they hope to do much more.

This makeover of the mill is happening without any opportunity for residents to decide whether we think converting an old uranium mill into an REE plant is a good idea. The U.S. Department of Energy has given Energy Fuels money to subsidize this transformation, all without public scrutiny.

I have spent my life advocating for people, water, wildlife, plants and land. For too long, Native people have been denied a voice. I have no doubt that if this was happening near a wealthy white neighborhood in Salt Lake City, officials would be acting to defend that community from harm. The majority Native American population of San Juan County deserves the same treatment.

We have a lot of healing to do, and it’s up to all citizens to get right with their neighbors. There’s no other way to say it: the White Mesa Mill is a bad neighbor. It’s time that we, as their landlords, evicted them.

(Photo by Tim Peterson | Grand Canyon Trust) Kenneth Maryboy

Kenneth Maryboy, Diné, is a San Juan County, Utah Commissioner.