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Utes, enviros prepare for march against White Mesa uranium mill in Utah

Protest marchers walk to the entrance of the White Mesa uranium mill in southeast Utah every fall to raise awareness about the dangers of uranium milling and mining. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)
Mill owner Energy Fuels announces $1 million community foundation for education, health and economic programs for Native Americans

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and environmental groups will host a protest and spiritual walk Oct. 22 at 11 a.m. at the White Mesa Community Center south of Blanding, Utah, to voice opposition to a uranium mill.

The annual rally is held against Energy Fuel’s White Mesa Mill, which sits outside the boundaries of the Ute Mountain Ute reservation in southeast Utah. The mill is not affiliated with the tribe.

Rally participants walk 3 miles on U.S. Highway 191 from the community center to the entrance to the mill. Shuttles and support are provided. Law enforcement officers assist with traffic safety.

“They are bringing toxic waste, radioactive waste, from places all across the United States to the mill in White Mesa,” said Yolanda Badback, of the White Mesa Concerned Community in a news release. “In the past, some has spilled. I can smell the mill from my house when it’s running. We are the closest community. If there’s a spill, or an accident, it’s our children who ride the school bus on these roads with the trucks every morning. That’s why we’re standing up and saying: Enough. We want to keep our home and our children safe.”

Apr 13, 2022
EPA: Uranium waste pond at White Mesa, Utah, out of compliance
Aug 12, 2022
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Reports about the environmental concerns on the mill are available at the Grand Canyon Trust website.

On Friday at 2 p.m. at the White Mesa Community Center, the Ute Mountain Tribe Environmental Department will present how to get involved in a citizen science project to monitor pollution impacts on health and the environment. The workshop is part of the White Mesa Community Health Awareness Project.

At 4 p.m. there will be a presentation on the concerns about the uranium mills impacts to air, land, health and cultural resources. A community dinner and live music will follow.

The White Mesa Community Center, located on U.S. Highway 191, 6 miles south of Blanding.

The 2022 Rally and Spiritual Walk is co-sponsored by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, Ute Mountain Tribe, White Mesa Concerned Community, Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, Uranium Watch, Indigenous Environmental Network, Grand Canyon Trust, Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Living Rivers, HEAL Utah, SLC Air Protectors, Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, National Parks Conservation Association, PANDOS.

Mill defends operations as safe

The White Mesa mill is the only conventional uranium mill operating in the U.S. It has had a mix of supporters and detractors over its lifetime.

The tribe and environmental groups have long opposed the mill, citing concerns about water and air quality. Blanding and Monticello support the mill for its jobs and tax revenues.

The mill, owned by Energy Fuels, has defended its operations as environmentally safe and as an economic driver and job provider.

Energy Fuels recently expanded operations to process rare earths essential for manufacturing technical devices and electric car batteries. It also receives radioactive wastes from cleanup sites in the U.S. and other countries. The processed uranium is used for fuel rods in nuclear power plants.

Rare earth elements are loaded into a truck for export from the White Mesa Mill in southeast Utah. Energy Fuels has begun processing ore to extract minerals used in electronics and electric cars. (Courtesy Energy Fuels)

In April, the EPA took action against the mill for draining a water cover on a waste containment pond the agency said is required. The mill agreed to refill it. In July, another waste containment cell containing uranium tailings was shown to be losing a portion its water cover. The company said the lack of water was a result of evaporation from warm weather, and efforts were being made to refill it completely.

The Clean Air Act requires a water cover on containment cells with solid uranium tailings to prevent cancer-causing radon emissions.

Energy Fuels has stated its intent is to fully cover the waste containment cells with water. Company officials had argued one of the cells did not contain solid uranium tailings, and therefore did not require a water cover. The company claimed it had permission from the EPA to drain the water from that cell, but agreed to refill it with the water cover.

Last fall, Energy Fuels announced the establishment of the San Juan County Clean Energy Foundation, designed to benefit the communities surrounding its White Mesa Mill in southeastern Utah. On Oct. 20, Energy Fuels announced the appointment of the Foundation’s inaugural advisory board and the launch of its new website at www.sanjuancountycleanenergy.org.

Energy Fuels deposited an initial $1 million into the Clean Energy Foundation in 2021 and anticipates providing ongoing annual funding equal to 1% of the mill’s future revenues, according to a news release. The fund will be distributed for community projects and programs.

“We are thrilled and appreciate those who have agreed to serve on our inaugural advisory board, it’s an impressive group,” said Mark Chalmers, CEO of Energy Fuels, in the release. “These advisory members live in the area and can weigh-in and help prioritize the needs of the community. We believe that San Juan County deserves to share in the benefits of the Mill’s clean-energy future. The board will help us make an impact and improve the lives of those in our community.”

Foundation funds will support programs focusing on education, environment, health/wellness, economic advancement and Native American initiatives. The Foundation has already responded to the needs of a number of respondents through donations into the community.

The members of the advisory board are: Adriann Shumway Goodwine, Dashelle Holliday, Jenn Keith, Anthony Lott, Lauana Morris and Robert Turk.