Representatives from Grand Canyon Trust, Information Network for Responsible Mining, Uranium Watch and the tribe are urging the public to oppose removing national radon emission and waste-storage standards affecting the nearby White Mesa Uranium Mill, owned by Energy Fuels.
“Not knowing what the radon emissions are from the mill is a serious risk to public health in Blanding, White Mesa and Bluff,” said Anne Mariah Tapp, an attorney for Grand Canyon Trust.
Tapp is concerned that radioactive toxins are released from six impoundments that store wastes from milling uranium ore into yellow cake. The concentrated uranium product is packed in barrels and shipped to make fuel rods for nuclear power plants.
Uranium mill critics are urging the EPA to not remove the 20 pico Curie radon emission standard for impoundments. Radon is a radioactive by-product of the uranium milling process.
Another concern is an EPA proposal to do away with a requirement that only two tailing impoundments can operate at a time, Tapp said.
“The idea is to make sure one impoundment is safely reclaimed before filling the next one with wastes,” she said. “If this goes through, there will be less incentive for reclamation of the ponds. The fear is that they will walk away, creating a massive cleanup like what happened at the Atlas site in Moab.”
Remediation of that uranium mill is expected to exceed $1 billion, a cost paid by taxpayers after the owners declared bankruptcy.
Grand Canyon Trust recently filed a citizens lawsuit against the White Mesa mill for violating Clean Air Act standards for radon emissions, and for operating more than the two allowable tailing impoundments.
Mining advocates at the meeting were skeptical of health risks and wondered if the radon could have come from natural sources.
Sarah Fields, of Uranium Watch, responded the uranium milling process creates stored waste that contain unnatural, concentrated levels of radioactive materials requiring strict controls.
“They are released into the air, have a half-life of three to five days, have no odor, and attach to dust that can be breathed in,” she said. “The radioactive contaminates lodge in the lungs and are a proven cause of lung cancer, often showing up many years later.”
An EPA alternative to control radon in tailing ponds with a layer of water a meter thick will not be effective, said Mike King, an air-quality specialist with the Ute Mountain tribe.
“Our research shows that mixing of the water from winds releases hazardous gases, and without (radon emission) standards there can be no enforcement to prevent dangerous levels in the air,” he said.
The Ute Mountain environmental department researched radon emissions using a model study, and estimated levels at a mill impoundment to be over 100 pico Curie.
“We feel the “1 meter” rule is inadequate to protect public health,” King said. “EPA has not responded to our studies.”
Plant, water, and soil samples tested by the tribe around the mill show evidence of radioactive deposition separate from background levels, tribe officials said.
White Mesa resident David Ketchum cut through the complicated environmental science and quagmire of nuclear regulations.
“If our rabbits and deer drink contaminated water, eat contaminated forage, will they get sick? We hunt those animals, so the obvious concern is that we could get sick,” Ketchum said.
Tapp said animals are at risk, and less strict standards would handicap agencies charged with protecting public health.
“In fact Native Americans are more exposed to the risk of contaminates from the mill because they traditionally gather plants and hunt their own food in the area,” added Celine Hawkins, a Ute Mountain tribe attorney.
The mill has changed the way people live in the small White Mesa community of 200 tribal members, said tribal council representative Malcom Lehi.
“We drink bottled water, we don’t hunt where we used to,” he said. “During the dry summer months when the wind blows from the mill, it scares people.”
A comment period on the proposed EPA rule change goes until Wednesday, Oct. 29. To comment go to www.regulations.gov, enter docket no. EPA-HQ-OAR-2008-218.It will be six months to a year before the decision is made.
Additional information can also be found at http://www.epa.gov/radiation/neshaps/subpartw/rulemaking-activity.html#comment-period.