Toxic leaks on U.S. 191 reveal lax shipping practices

Saturday, April 29, 2017 1:34 PM
A load of toxic sludge from a Wyoming uranium mine is dumped in a waste containment cell at the White Mesa Mill in March.
A dripping trail of radioactive waste leads toward the White Mesa mill along U.S. 191. An investigation in June by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission found that mining company Cameco Resources failed to adequately package hazardous waste for transport. Waste shipments from the Saskatchewan-based company have been suspended pending an NRC correction plan.
Workers wash off hazardous waste from the entrance to the White Mesa Mill and U.S. 191 after a delivery truck arrived leaking. Contaminated soil was removed.
Barium sulfate, a radioactive waste product of uranium mining, leaked from this container truck in March while en route to the White Mesa mill disposal site in southeast Utah. The driver said he braked for a deer near Meeker, causing the load to shift.

Radioactive sludge has been leaking and spilling from trucks delivering mining waste to the White Mesa uranium mill south of Blanding, Utah, according to a report from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Twice in eight months — on Aug. 19, 2015, and March 28-29, 2016 — a container truck shipping barium sulfate sludge from a Wyoming uranium mine to White Mesa’s waste-storage facility leaked its toxic contents en route.

In an Aug. 30 letter, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered mine owner Cameco and Power Resources Inc., to suspend shipments pending an investigation and approved corrective action plan.

An NRC investigation in June concluded Cameco failed to effectively package the waste and did not accurately describe the contents and quantity of loads in shipping papers.

“While the licensee took several corrective actions after the August 2015 incident, the corrective actions were not effective,” wrote Kriss Kennedy, NRC regional administrator.

The driver of the truck said he didn’t notice the leak until he arrived at the mill’s entrance about 11:30 p.m. on March 28, and he texted his dispatcher about it. He also stated that while traveling near Meeker, Colorado, he braked hard to avoid a deer, which jarred his load.

The low-level radioactive waste was delivered from the Smith Ranch in situ uranium mine in Glenrock, Wyoming.

Waste shipments are haltedBarium sulfate is a toxic byproduct of in situ uranium mining and is considered an environmental and human health hazard. There were no reported injuries because of the leaks, the latest of which spilled onto U.S. 191, but it has raised local concerns.

Shipments of the waste have regularly been delivered to the mill about every six months, but have been stopped pending NRC approval.

“We are not happy about the spillage and are addressing the problem as seriously as we can,” Cameco spokesman Kenneth Vaughn told The Journal. “We will not resume shipments until all issues are resolved.”

Beginning, extent of leak unknown

NRC and Utah officials say it is unknown how much of the waste may leaked out of the container. The shipment began with 13 cubic yards of waste, but Ryan Johnson, of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said the shipment’s load upon arrival at the White Mesa mill was not determined before it was dumped into a waste cell.

Energy Fuels, owner of the White Mesa mill, estimated in a report to the NRC that less than 5 gallons of waste had leaked, but the estimate was only for what appeared on the truck, mill entrance road and a short section of U.S. 191.

On the morning of March 29, Cameco’s shipment was leaking a “white paste-like material” when workers arrived at the mill, according to White Mesa mill staff.

The waste was splattered onto the outside of the container and truck and had spilled onto the mill’s entrance road and U.S. 191, the report said. A spill line ran along the highway north toward Blanding. Radiation levels recorded at the spill site exceeded legal limits, according to NRC documents.

The NRC required Cameco to retrace the route of the shipment to investigate if there were additional radioactive contamination, but none could be detected.

During transport, there was a winter storm that would have washed away road contamination, “making it impossible to determine when the leaking of the transport began,” reported Scott Anderson, director of the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control, in a letter to the NRC.

Mill responded effectively

Johnson said Energy Fuels responded effectively to the March incident, documenting it with more than 40 photographs, informing state and federal agencies, and conducting immediate decontamination of the spill area and truck.

“We were glad they took the approach they did,” Johnson said.

Curtis Moore, a spokesman for Energy Fuels, owner of the White Mesa Mill, said they complied with mill policies and state and federal regulations when the leak was discovered, but have limited control over shipping companies.

“We only take delivery and expect shippers to follow the law, which obviously did not happen in this case,” Moore said.

After allowing the truck to dump the waste in a containment cell, White Mesa crews washed the waste material off the road and removed 5-6 cubic yards of contaminated soils. The cleanup stretched for a quarter mile along U.S. 191.

No fines have been issued as a result of the spills, Utah officials report, and the general public was not notified of the toxic spills.

Ute Mountain Utes concernedThe mill and its waste shipments have been a concern for environmental groups and the neighboring Ute Mountain Ute tribe.

“Our community walks along that road, and the spilled waste migrates onto nearby land and water causing contamination,” said Ute Mountain Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart. “When that waste material dries, it becomes airborne and impacts human and animal health.”

Aaron Paul, an attorney for Grant Canyon Trust, said it is troubling that the public was not notified of the recent spills.

“It is the job of government to inform the public when hazardous, radioactive materials are spilled,” he said. “Letting the public know what happened and where it spilled should be a matter of policy.”

The White Mesa Mill is the only conventional operating uranium mill in the country. It processes uranium ore and alternative feed material into yellow cake used for fuel in nuclear power plants.

Heart and Paul contend that the White Mesa Mill was intended to process uranium ore, but has since evolved to accept, store and process mining waste from across the country.

“The practice has not been scrutinized,” Paul said. “The broader concern is that we have all kinds of waste streams being dumped into the White Mesa mill site and the fact that some of those materials have spilled is deeply concerning.”