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Blanding, Ute tribe debate uranium mill

Discussion pits jobs against uranium waste

A lively public hearing regarding a license renewal for the controversial White Mesa uranium mill drew supporters and detractors last week on the University of Utah campus.

Thirty-three speakers from a crowd of 90 debated benefits such as jobs and tax revenue versus the risk storing radioactive waste close to towns and underground water sources.

The mill is owned by Energy Fuels, of Canada, and is the only conventional operating uranium mill in the U.S. that provides fuel for nuclear power plants. It’s on U.S. Highway 191 between Blanding and White Mesa, a satellite Ute Mountain Ute reservation town.

Energy Fuels seeks to renew its groundwater-discharge permit and radioactive materials license from the Waste Management and Radiation Control Division of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

The agency is hosting public hearings and is accepting public comment on the renewal application until July 31.

Blanding residents and public officials supported the mill, confident that regulations were keeping the community safe.

“The mill operates in a proper manner and provides fuel for U.S. power plants,” said Bruce Adams, a San Juan County commissioner. “It also makes sense to clean up uranium sites on the Navajo Nation by bringing the tailings to the mill so they can be processed in careful, proper way.”

San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman praised the nuclear power industry.

“Uranium is natural and a tremendous benefit to mankind and the nation,” he said. “The ingenuity and technology to convert it into power is beautiful and holds the key to a peaceful and clean world.”

Ron Nelson, associate superintendent of the San Juan School District, said the district relies on the mill’s property tax contributions of $200,000 to $400,000 per year.

“It’s a tremendous benefit for our 12 schools,” he said. “With it we were able to finance a preschool in the White Mesa (reservation) community.”

But residents of Bluff and White Mesa, along with Ute Mountain Ute officials, were critical of the mill and the license renewal, citing radioactive threats to groundwater and air, and the risk of waste-transport accidents.

“We are downwind and downstream of the mill,” said Thelma Whiskers, a Ute from White Mesa. “Our children and grandchildren playing outside breathe in the smoke and dust. Close it down or move it somewhere else.”

Scott Clow, environmental director for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, urged more groundwater monitoring wells near the White Mesa community, stricter testing standards, a larger reclamation bond and more radon monitoring.

The mill reclamation bond is $23 million, but Clow said cleanup costs could be between $30 million and $130 million.

“It’s underfunded. The tribe is concerned that radioactive, toxic waste will be stored near the White Mesa community forever,” he said. “It is imperative that reclamation is technically sound and timely if Energy Fuels decides to close the mill.”

Clow said Utah tests for contaminates in monitoring wells are outdated and ineffective. He said older waste-storage cells are not designed to handle alternate-feed materials being delivered from other radioactive cleanup sites.

“On the mill property, there are two contaminate plumes currently being remediated, and there are statistical significant trends in the well-monitoring network of continuing groundwater-quality degradation,” Clow said.

Tribal attorney Peter Ortego warned that jobs and money will dry up, and the waste left over is “there in perpetuity.”

“Health and the environment, social justice are the most important. When there is bankruptcy, or the mill is shut down, who will pay to clean it up? We will be stuck with this, just as the Navajos were stuck with abandoned uranium mines.”

An emotional back-and-forth continued for the last hour of the meeting.

Mill workers stepped up to defend the mill, saying it is safe and provides a good-paying job.

“Mill jobs are a good opportunity for Navajo reservation where the unemployment is 50 percent,” said Shawn Begay, a Navajo. “I’m thankful for the mill.”

“I work at the mill and see that they do their best to make sure they are in accordance with regulations,” said Jeremy Jones.

A neighbor who has a water well near the mill said regulations are working because his well tested “pristine.”

A Bluff resident worried that local emergency responders do not have the proper safety equipment to handle a major fire or disaster at the mill. The fact that it has not happened is a testament to the mill’s safety record, responded a mill supporter.

Another Bluff resident said the older liners on some waste ponds make the mill’s safety claims “hard to trust.”

Amber Reimondo, of the environmental Grand Canyon Trust, noted that a past uranium cleanup operation in Monticello was a Superfund site, and currently there is an ongoing and costly mill-tailings cleanup near Moab. She was concerned that White Mesa also may face an expensive cleanup.

Blanding resident Tony Kirk countered that while those cleanups were “bad situations,” it does not mean the same situation exists at the White Mesa mill. “We support the mill, we are not afraid of the mill, and we have confidence in the science of the mill,” he said.

How to comment

Written comments on the White Mesa license renewal will be accepted through July 31.

Comments can be mailed to P.O. Box 144880, Salt Lake City, UT 84114-4850 or emailed to dwmrcpublic@utah.gov, with Public Comment on White Mesa RML Renewal as the subject line. Documents related to the White Mesa Uranium Mill license and permit renewals are available on the Utah DEQ website: deq.utah.gov/NewsNotices/notices/waste/index.htm#efr.

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