For the third year, Ute Mountain Utes and environmental groups held a rally and march to protest the White Mesa uranium mill south of Blanding, Utah.
The 30-year-old mill, owned by Energy Fuels, of Toronto, is the only conventional uranium mill operating in the nation. The processed uranium is sold to make fuel rods for nuclear power plants.
But the waste containment ponds that store chemicals left over in the milling process have come under scrutiny by the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. The mill is 3 miles north of tribal lands and the reservation community of White Mesa.
“We draw our water from wells, so, of course, toxic waste standing in older ponds on land nearby is a concern for us,” said Thelma Whiskers, of the group White Mesa Concerned Community. “We are marching together to raise awareness and to be noticed.”
In advance of the event, Ute Mountain Utes hosted a three-day seminar at the White Mesa Community Center to educate the tribal community about the nearby mill and what is being done to monitor the air and groundwater.
“We are becoming more informed, and are sharing the information among us,” said Yolanda Badback, a White Mesa resident, during a speech. “Stand strong. Individually, we are not as effective as when there are hundreds of us demanding action.”
She wants mill officials and regulators to communicate better with the White Mesa community about issues concerning the mill. For example, in 2016, a radioactive waste shipment to the mill from Cameco Power Resources leaked onto U.S. Highway 191, but the community was not notified.
“We need to know these things. Our people walk along that road, our children take the bus there,” Badback said during the rally.
In November, a lawsuit by Grand Canyon Trust against the White Mesa mill for alleged regulatory violations was dismissed by a District judge in Utah. The mill’s radioactive materials license recently was renewed.
A new aspect of the license is that three additional monitoring wells near the mill are in an area where groundwater flows toward tribal lands, said Scott Clow, the tribe’s environmental director. He said that after the tribe and Grand Canyon Trust questioned an unpermitted containment pond at the mill, it was removed.
The tribe has also installed an air monitoring station downwind from the mill to check for radionuclides. Tribe officials said the air sample tests have come back within environmental standards for clean air. A mobile air quality unit is being looked into to check areas along the reservation boundary.
About 70 marchers participated, many carrying signs reading, “Native Lives Matter,” “Leave Uranium in the Ground,” and “Justice for White Mesa Utes.” An escort van played Native American songs over a loudspeaker, and passing cars and semitrailers slowed down and gave the group a wide berth.
“We are saying we are here,” said marcher Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a former Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council member. “People think the next town from the mill is Bluff, and they forget about us in between.”
She said the current climate of deregulation for the energy industry concerns the community.
“The worry is that they will use the favorable political climate to expand the mill,” Whiteskunk said.
She marched with family members, including White Clay, 20, an aspiring rap artist.
“I’d like to write a song about the struggle here,” she said. “Our elders fought for their rights, and we are continuing that fight.”
This year, there was no police escort, nor did San Juan County Sheriff’s Office and Bureau of Indian Affairs officers attempt to block protesters at the mill entrance liked they did last year, triggering a heated verbal confrontation.
“They stayed back this year, and that makes for a calmer, peaceful protest,” said Bradley Angel, of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, one of the organizers.
Protesters returned the favor by not going past the private drive sign. They ended the march with speeches, prayers and songs in front of the mill’s entrance sign.
“It went well. We have our elders here, and our young people also are participating,” said Priscilla Bancroft. “The message I have for the mill executives is that we are your neighbor; if you want to be here, you need call us about issues that are going on because that is what good neighbors do.”
In response to mill criticism, Energy Fuels has said that it consistently complies with state regulations at the White Mesa mill and that the facility is safe. Supporters of the mill in Blanding and Monticello point to the mill’s financial benefits, including jobs and the tax revenue that goes toward local schools.