About 50 protesters marched against the White Mesa Uranium Mill Saturday along U.S. Highway 191 south of Blanding, Utah.
The annual spiritual walk is organized by environmental groups and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which has a reservation community – also called White Mesa – 3 miles south of the mill.
The event started at the White Mesa community center, and participants walked along the shoulder of the highway for 5 miles to the entrance of the mill where Native songs were sung and speeches delivered.
People held signs saying “No Uranium Mining,” “Native Lives Matter” and “Water is Life,” among others. The Utah State Patrol and San Juan County Sheriff Department provided an escort for the marchers, and no problems were reported.
March organizer and Ute Mountain Ute tribal member Yolanda Badback said the purpose of the protest was to raise awareness about the dangers uranium poses to people, water, land and wildlife.
“We have been fighting this mill and the uranium mining around here for a long time, and will continue to fight it until the mill is moved or cleaned up,” she said at the beginning of the march at the White Mesa Community Center.
The mill was built in 1980, and is owned by Energy Fuels. It is the only conventional uranium mill operating in the nation.
It processes uranium ore and also accepts shipments of radioactive materials from cleanup sites across the U.S. The yellow cake uranium product it squeezes out from ore and materials from cleanup sites is used to make fuel rods in nuclear power plants.
The mill recently began accepting radioactive materials from Japan and Estonia for processing. It also has expanded operations to process rare-earth minerals with ore shipped from Georgia.
The heavy metals and processing fluids left over from milling are permanently stored in a series of waste containment ponds at the mill.
During a open house in September, Energy Fuels asserted that it stays in compliance with regulations, operates safely, and that the industry is heavily regulated.
But for the White Mesa community and others nearby, the waste containment ponds and mill represent a threat to people, groundwater and wildlife, said Michael Badback, of White Mesa.
“We’re downstream of the mill. The smoke settles in our community, especially in winter, and smells terrible. There is less hunting here because there is a fear of contamination. Everyone drinks bottled water,” he said.
The tribe monitors domestic wells in the White Mesa community, and there has been no direct evidence that contaminates from the mill have impacted the water table.
But the mill’s proximity just a few miles north is concerning, residents said.
Fencing around the mill’s waste impoundment cells is inadequate to keep out wildlife who may drink the toxic water, Badback said during the march. The mill sits within a deer migration corridor.
The Ute Mountain Ute tribe has urged the mill to install deer-proof fencing around the waste containment ponds, and negotiations are ongoing, said Scott Clow, environmental programs director for the Ute Mountain tribe.
During a conference Friday, Clow said a flyover of the mill in July revealed a waste containment cell was not fully covered by a layer of water, which is required by environmental law to limit radon emissions.
The violation was reported by the tribe to state and federal regulators, Clow said, and it is unknown if any corrective action was taken.
Kathleen Packish, from Bluff, attended the march. She said it’s worrisome when the dust kicks up near the mill and blows to nearby towns.
“If they are going to keep the mill open, it should be done more responsibly with stricter regulations and enforcement,” said her friend Charlotte, of Cortez.
Dexter Whiskers, a Southern Paiute from White Mesa, said he wants top Energy Fuels officials to “open their eyes and see the mill from our shoes. ‘What would you do if this was in your neighborhood, affecting your family?’ It’s an unsafe environment for our people, not only for us, but for our kids and grandkids.”
He said it was troubling when in 2016 a truck delivering radioactive fluids to the mill leaked onto the highway at the mill entrance, and it was not reported to White Mesa residents, who regularly walk along that section of road.
Cameco Resources, the Wyoming company that shipped the waste, was investigated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Shipping violations were found and a corrective action plan was put in place, but no fines were issued.
Aliysha Arnold, 13, of Towaoc, attended the march for the first time. She learned the march was “for the water that we all need. It is important to warn people of contamination.”
“Change is slow, but change is coming. We continue to see situations like this around indigenous communities, and communities that are low income,” said Regina Whiteskunk, of the Ute Mountain Tribe Ute tribe. “We’re not going away, and we will continue to encourage protection for our land and water.”