Fifty anti-nuclear activists including Ute Mountain Ute tribal members showed up Saturday for a 5-mile protest march to the entrance of the White Mesa uranium mill in southeast Utah.
The 31-year-old mill, owned by Energy Fuels, processes radioactive wastes from cleanup sites across the country and mills conventional uranium ore. The extracted uranium from the milling, called yellow cake, is sold to make fuel rods for nuclear power plants.
The chemical wastes from milling are permanently stored in a series of containment cells regulated by the company and Utah environmental officials.
The mill’s operations and older waste containment ponds have come under scrutiny by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Grand Canyon Trust. Energy Fuels asserts the mill’s operations are safe and operate within the standards of Utah and federal regulatory agencies.
Third year of marchMarchers walked along the shoulder of U.S. Highway 191 and carried signs that read “No Uranium, Protect Sacred Lands,” “Uranium is Toxic at Any Level,” and “Water is Life.” This is the third year of the march.
The mill is 3 miles north of the small White Mesa reservation community and south of Blanding, Utah. It is the only conventional operating uranium mill in the nation.
During the walk, many marchers expressed concerns about the mill’s potential impacts on water, land and air, and were worried about radioactive waste shipments transported to the mill along local roads. 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 immediately notified.
Air, water concernsMichael Badback, a Ute Mountain Ute tribal member from White Mesa, spoke of the mill through a bullhorn.
“Because of the way the wind blows, (and) during winter inversions, we can smell the mill,” he said. “We are trying to protect our small reservation community. These trucks with hazardous shipments travel through here, and I think it is dangerous. There have been leaks. Our community and schoolchildren are on those roads.”
An air monitoring unit set up by the tribe at the town of White Mesa has not recorded hazardous air pollutants, according to tribal environmental officials. According to Uranium Watch, a Monticello, Utah, nonprofit that advocates for protection of public health and environment from of uranium mills and mines, a covering over one cell is being tested to reduce off-gassing.
The potential for groundwater contamination from older, waste containment cells is a concern, tribal officials said. Groundwater is part of the shallow aquifer that recharges the creeks and springs on the edges of the mesa.
“Our department is working to prevent any contamination from ever reaching the reservation,” said Scott Clow, director of the tribe’s environment department.
The tribe’s drinking water comes from a 1,000-foot-deep aquifer, and pollutants tied to the mill have not been detected there. A concern of the tribe is whether there is an connection between the shallow and deeper aquifers.
Recent relaxing of groundwater compliance standards by Utah regulators also is a concern, Clow said.
More education is needed so future generations can continue to monitor mill activity, said Beamus Lehi, who grew up in White Mesa.
“We are standing up for our people to raise awareness. Our families and kids live close to the mill, and that radioactivity is a real health concern,” he said.
In rural areas with spotty internet service, “it is important (for educators) to travel to the community and update the public about mill on goings,” added Talia Boyd, of Grand Canyon Trust.
Mill cites environmental benefitsEnergy Fuels points to the mill’s beneficial role in cleaning up radioactive sites across the country by accepting and storing the wastes. It also is seeking permission from the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency to accept tailings from long-abandoned mines on tribal lands.
The mill is licensed to accept radioactive wastes from cleanup sites across the nation.
Energy Fuels wants to add two waste containment cells in anticipation of increased milling volume, said Amber Reimondo, of Grand Canyon Trust. A concern is that the new containment ponds could be installed closer to the reservation’s northern boundary, tribal members said.
Reimondo added there is an effort by the uranium industry to convince the U.S. Department of Commerce that nuclear power plants and government utilities should be required to purchase more domestic uranium.
If approved, it could jump-start uranium mining in the Southwest United States by increasing the price, which has been too low to justify much mining currently.
‘This is what we smell’At the end of the peaceful march, participants gathered at the entrance to the mill. Tribal members performed songs and drumming. There was an odor residents said comes from the nearby waste containment cells.
“That is what we smell because of the way the wind blows down the valley to our community,” said Yolanda Badback, founder of White Mesa Concerned Community. “Thank you for supporting our effort.”
Her son, Anfreny Badback, 20, plans to continue pushing awareness about the mill.
“We are learning from her, passing it on,” he said. “We are using social media, we attend this march, talk to the media and put out flyers. The next generation needs to know what is going on.”