On Thursday a meeting was held in White Mesa, Utah, — a small Ute Mountain reservation community — regarding a new EPA proposal for radon emissions from the nearby White Mesa Uranium Mill.
The controversial facility is owned by Energy Fuels and is the only operating conventional uranium mill in the nation. It’s located 3 miles from the tribe’s reservation community of 200 residents, on U.S. 191 between Bluff and Blanding.
In response to EPA’s refusal to hold a hearing in White Mesa, the environmental group Grand Canyon Trust decided to host the informational meeting.
The Ute Mountain tribe has studied air and groundwater in the region and has expressed concerns about the environmental risks of the mill, its tailing ponds and emissions. Tribal chair Manuel Heart has said he would like it to be shut down.
“But despite local concerns, the EPA denied requests to hold a hearing on the rule within a reasonable distance of affected communities,” said Anne Mariah Tapp, director of energy for Grand Canyon Trust. “Instead, EPA held sparsely attended meetings in Denver 450 miles away but a convenient 8 miles from the Lakewood office of Energy Fuels.”
Earlier this year, Grand Canyon Trust sued Energy Fuels for allegedly emitting excessive radon in violation of Clean Air Act standards. The Trust’s suit also challenges the mill for operating six instead of the maximum allowed two storage ponds (impoundments) that hold uranium mill wastes.
“EPA’s decision to eliminate the numeric radon emission standard at the White Mesa Mill at a time when the mill is violating the Clean Air Act is short-sighted and irresponsible,” Tapp said. “The EPA can do better for the communities of southeastern Utah.”
Tapp says that in a departure from its current regulations, EPA’s proposed new rule fails to require Energy Fuels to clean up uranium mill tailings during the mill’s lifetime, and fails to limit the number of tailing impoundments.
The environmental watchdog group explains that the existing limit of two tailing impoundments was intended to ensure ongoing reclamation of uranium mill sites, and to prevent owners from abandoning highly polluted sites without remediation.
Jennifer Thurston, director of the Information Network for Responsible Mining, based in Norwood, points to the abandoned Atlas uranium mill outside Moab, Utah, as an example of lax regulations.
Remediation of that site is expected to exceed $1 billion, a cost paid by taxpayers after the mill owners declared bankruptcy.
“The EPA is setting the White Mesa Mill up to be the next chapter in the toxic legacy of uranium mill contamination on the Colorado Plateau,” Thurston said.
Public comment on the proposed EPA ruling on radon emissions has been extended to Oct. 29.For more information and to comment go to http://www.epa.gov/radiation/neshaps/subpartw/rulemaking-activity.html#comment-period.