After years of protesting the White Mesa uranium mill, Ute Mountain Utes and environmental groups cheered the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision last week to stop the mill from storing toxic waste.
The mill, owned by Energy Fuels Inc. of Denver, is the only conventional uranium mill in the nation. It processes waste from the cleanup of other mines to make a uranium concentrate, which is later sold to make fuel rods for nuclear power plants. The leftover waste from the milling process is then stored in containment pods at the mill.
Just 3 miles north of tribal lands and the reservation of White Mesa, north of Bluff, Utah, the mill came under scrutiny when the Ute Mountain Ute tribe claimed the mill was not correctly storing chemicals left over in the milling process.
The EPA confirmed as much on Dec. 2 when it notified Energy Fuels that the conditions “render this facility unacceptable for the receipt of off-site wastes generated as a result of removal or remedial activities under CERCLA.”
The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, known as Superfund, investigates and cleans up sites contaminated with hazardous substances. The EPA seeks to identify parties responsible for the waste and either compel the company to clean up the site or undertake the cleanup on its own behalf.
According to the letter, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality issued a compliance advisory to Energy Fuels for suspected violations of the Clean Air Act. It observed solids above the liquid surface of the cell reservoir, “indicating a failure to maintain liquid levels in the nonconventional impoundment” in accordance with the law.
A nonconventional impoundment is used for managing liquids from uranium recovery operations and contains uranium byproduct material. The EPA estimates the uncovered material observed at the top of the impoundment emits 10 times more radon than the covered material in the cell.
Discoveries released in the report were not news to some community members and environmental advocates. In November 2018, the Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation and environmental nonprofit, sued the mill for regulatory violations. However, a district court judge in Utah dismissed the lawsuit and renewed the license.
The EPA decision came as a victory for Scott Clow, Ute Mountain Ute environmental director, who has advocated for years on behalf of the tribe.
“We’ve been trying to compel the EPA to understand that it’s not a suitable site for off-wastes to go,” he said. “Until last week, the EPA had never taken action on that.”
Protesters, including tribe members, have gathered for five years at the mill to voice concerns that their well water was contaminated. The tribe also hosted educational seminars about the mill and what was being done to monitor the air and groundwater.
More pressing, Clow said, is what is unknown about the toxic waste that is transported to the mill.
“We don’t necessarily know what’s in it or where it’s coming from,” he said. “That’s not public information, rarely. Within North America, they’ve received materials from Canada, they’ve received materials from all across the U.S.”
Some materials, according to Clow, came from military cleanup sites. Others came from a uranium mine on a Spokane Tribe of Indians reservation in Washington that closed in 1981. In December 2018, the mill received more than 10,000 tons of waste from the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma.
Curtis Moore, vice president of marketing for Energy Fuels, said the EPA letter was unexpected because the company has followed EPA rules.
“We were extremely surprised by this letter, as EPA headquarters specifically told us in March 2019 that we could do exactly what this new letter raises as a concern,” he said. “The Dec. 2, 2021, letter is completely inconsistent with the March 2019 letter we’ve relied on.”
The March 2019 letter exempted the crystalline waste that accumulates in the cell. The Dec. 2 letter now holds that existing solids must be covered in liquid. Clow said the mood concerning environmental regulations has shifted since the administration of Donald Trump.
Tim Peterson, cultural landscapes director of Grand Canyon Trust, said Energy Fuels has been hypocritical in its commitment to preventing pollution.
“The mill’s ownership has been touting their commitment to clean energy, green jobs and community benefits, but all the while they’ve been in open violation of EPA rules, with exposed waste emitting 10 times the cancer-causing radon that it should be,” he said.
Processing Superfund wastes is a small part of Energy Fuels’ operations at White Mesa, according to Moore, so the business will be impacted slightly.
“They don’t like it when we call it a toxic waste dump, which it is. They prefer to cite the fact that they’re trying to extract some uranium out of the materials, and they call it recycling and try to green-wash it,” Clow said. “Their business is not processing uranium ore that is mined out of their mines anymore, it’s taking other people’s radioactive waste and disposing it, and they’re making a lot of money from it.”
Kelsey Carolan is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.
Energy Fuels Inc., which owns The White Mesa uranium mill, is based in Denver. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect city for where the company is based.