White Mesa, Utah – About 80 protesters opposed to the White Mesa uranium mill in southeast Utah marched three miles along U.S. Highway 191 to the mill’s entrance Saturday.
The protest was organized by members of Ute Mountain Ute tribe, which has a small reservation community 3 miles from the mill. The mill, which is owned by Energy Fuels, of Toronto, is the only conventional uranium mill operating in the country.
Protesters carried anti-nuclear signs, including “No Uranium, Protect Sacred Lands,” “Water is Life,” and “No Toxic Waste.”
They are concerned about the mill’s potential health impacts on air and water quality, and they object to containment cells at the mill that accept radioactive waste from around the country.
“The dust blowing from uranium ore piles is a concern. Our water comes from wells that are not far from those waste cells. Those things are a big worry for the community,” said Antonio Cly, 22, of the Ute Mountain tribe. He is studying the mill as a student at the University of Utah.
Thelma Whiskers, a Ute elder and founder of the White Mesa Concerned Community group, said her family has been fighting the mill all their lives, and the march was a way to raise awareness of the issues to pass on to the younger generation.
“We are here, and the fight must continue on to finally shut down this mill,” she said at the rally.
Tribal member Ephraim Dutchie said the march was part of a larger movement by Native American tribes to stand up for their rights and protect their lands.
“Together we are more powerful, together we will protect Mother Earth,” he said.
Lorraine Jones, grew up in White Mesa, and said many in the community of 300 want the mill shut down, but if that doesn’t happen, “then it should be done as safe as possible.”
Tribal member Trinity Meyers, 13, a student at Cortez Middle School, said she was at the march to “make sure our water is safe” and support the cause.
“If I could meet with the mill owners, I’d say, think of the community and safety, not just the money,” she said.
Marcus Atkinson, of Australia, is touring the U.S. promoting a film opposing uranium mining in his country and heard about the White Mesa protest.
“We would like to use this case in our next film to raise international awareness that uranium is too dangerous and is not the answer to our energy needs,” he said.
Several environmental groups also attended the rally, including Grand Canyon Trust, which sued Energy Fuels in 2015 for allegedly operating too many waste containment cells than allowed for under Environmental Protection Agency regulations. The case is pending.
Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement and Ute Mountain tribe security escorted the protesters as they walked along the shoulder of the highway in sunny, windy conditions. Semitrailers slowed down to pass, and cars beeped their horns as passengers pumped their fist in support.
At the White Mesa mill entrance, mill staff parked trucks across the driveway in an attempt to prevent the group from walking up to the closed gate 50 yards away.
But the marchers with banners defiantly continued passed the trucks, prompting the BIA and San Juan County sheriff deputy to drive in front of them, halting further progress and triggering a brief argument.
“It is a private driveway. Speak your peace, then please turn around,” a BIA officer said.
With dozens of cell phones held up in the air recording the event, protesters chanted “Protect the land, honor the land” and “Water is Life” then dispersed after 20 minutes.
A mill staffer who did not want to use his name said the mill is supported by the residents of nearby Blanding, and it provides millions of dollars in property tax revenues for San Juan County, which supports local schools.
“The mill is in good standing, and is heavily monitored and regulated,” he said.