A march against the White Mesa Mill Saturday in Utah was an energetic mix of Native American tribes, environmental groups and concerned citizens from the region.
About 100 people walked along U.S. Highway 191 for 5 miles to the uranium mill entrance south of Blanding.
“It is more people than last year. There is more awareness of our fight against the mill. It is nice to see all the support,” said Raymus Vijil, a Ute who carried a “No Uranium Protect Sacred Land” banner at the front of the peaceful march.
He lives in the nearby Ute Mountain Ute village of White Mesa, which is not affiliated with the mill.
“I hope this march gets even bigger and our voices are heard,” Vijil said.
The mill, owned by Energy Fuels, is the only conventional operating uranium mill in the country.
Because of the potential dangers of radioactive uranium and the on-site waste containment cells from the milling process, it has long been opposed by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which borders the mill to the south.
Before the march, Bruce Gordon of EcoFlight, took groups of passengers up in his Cessna for an aerial view the mill site, which sits a mile east Bears Ears National Monument.
“I want to see how the waste ponds look,” said Anfreny Cly, a Ute Mountain tribal member from White Mesa before taking a flight. “You can see how this one is exposed, and it is not supposed to be” pointing to pictures laid out at the Blanding Airport lobby.
A water cover acts as a barrier for radon emissions, said Tim Peterson, Cultural Landscape director for Grand Canyon Trust.
The lack of a water cover over one of the waste ponds “is a violation of the Clean Air Act,” he said during a flyover with a Journal reporter and a Durango Herald photographer.
The mill claims the water cover is not needed on that particular pond per EPA negotiations, but has since said it would refill it with the water cover, which is expected to take until March.
The rally began at the White Mesa Community Center on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation with prayers and speeches.
“We’re fighting for our future generations. We will keep fighting,” said longtime rally organizer Yolanda Badback.
“We want the old pond liners to be replaced to prevent (waste) from seeping to the aquifer. We depend on well water. We don’t want the mill to get bigger,” Yolanda Badback said.
Ute Mountain Ute Thelma Whiskers and Tohono O’odham tribal member Ophelio Revas addressed the crowd in their native languages and English.
“Every step on this walk is a prayer. Our ancestors are standing behind us, when we stand strong, our ancestors are with us. That is the reverence of this spiritual walk,” Revas said. “We are defending Mother Earth, this sacred land.”
Lori Riddle, of Gila River Indian Tribe in Arizona, came up to support the Ute Mountain marchers.
“We are going through similar things on our reservation with polluting businesses,” she said.
Stricter environmental regulations are needed to protect the water in the Colorado River basin so many people depend on, Riddle said.
“Water connects us,” she said.
Tevacita Keyanna, of the Navajo Tribe, advocates for cleaning up uranium Super Fund sites on the Navajo Reservation for the Red Water Pond Road Community Association. But she and group are against bringing the uranium Super Fund wastes to be processed and stored at the White Mesa mill.
“We don’t want another Indigenous community impacted by the same industry, it is not right,” she said. “We are in solidarity with the White Mesa community group, and we work to make sure the (Super Fund site cleanup) is not put here, that it is put somewhere safe.”
Phalia Badback, of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, thinks the mill should close.
“It’s bad pollution coming from the smoke stacks and ponds; we can smell it in the air. I worry about our water, and our young ones, they might get sick later down the line. We’re afraid of it, we need to walk to do something.”
She’s concerned about the health of wildlife depended on by the tribe for subsistence living.
“The animals see those (waste) ponds as a water source, I worry that the fencing is not adequate,” Phalia Badback said.
It was the first time Ute Mountain Ute Tribe member Contessa Tillahash attended the march, and she has been attending workshops to learn more about it.
“We’re downstream of the mill. If there are leaks in those ponds, it could migrate toward us,” she said. “It is about protecting our water our wildlife. I’d want the mill CEO to be more secure with the mill, close off the older parts.”
The White Mesa Mill has moved toward the market of accepting alternate feed material from cleanup sites in the U.S. and world, said Aaron Paul, an attorney for Grand Canyon Trust.
It processes residual uranium and permanently stores milling wastes products because it has the permits and containment ponds, said Aaron Paul, an attorney for Grand Canyon Trust.
He believes the mill is not ideally set up for that, and that other waste disposal sites in the country are more suitable for storing low level radioactive wastes.
The protest march “brings more awareness, and forces people in power to pay attention more,” Paul said. “Regulators are starting to take more concrete actions.”
Friends Dallin Posey, 12, and Jayshawn Salt, 14, of Towaoc, said they came to the march to “be supportive and help” and plan to use the experience as part of their school work.
The Ute Mountain Environmental Department continues to monitor air and groundwater wells positioned near the mill. They were recently awarded a $70,000 environmental justice grant from the EPA.
The grant is funding additional air monitoring will be placed near the boundary of the mill property to check for radon levels, said Janice Archuleta of the tribe’s air quality program.
Another study planned looks to sample particulate material in the air blowing near the mill to try and determine the cause of the “funky acid, kerosene smell” often experienced in the White Mesa Community, said Ute Mountain Environmental Department Director Scott Clow.
More monitoring of wildlife and sagebrush health in the vicinity of the mill is also planned, he said. A fifth water monitoring well between the mill boundary and the White Mesa Community will be installed soon.
A citizen science program by the tribe intends to get more people involved in air and water monitoring science and education. Another goal is to establish an information library at the White Mesa Community Center about the mill.
The White Mesa Mill and its owner Energy Fuels released a statement to The Journal about the protest walk and their mission.
“Energy Fuels supports the right to free speech and peaceful protest. As part of our commitment to authentic engagement with the community, we continue to foster a constructive dialogue that is grounded in facts,” the release states. “We hear the concerns of a limited number of community members from neighboring Tribes, and we will continue our outreach to address those concerns and address inaccurate statements used by those who do not understand our mission. We welcome the opportunity to meet with any party via personal meetings, calls and/or tours of the mill to help them understand what we do and how we impact the local area.”
Mill officials stated the “health and safety of our employees, members of the community and the environment are fundamental to everything we do at the White Mesa Mill.”
“As San Juan County’s primary economic engine, the White Mesa Mill represents an opportunity for Southeastern Utah to play a key role in the country’s transition to clean, carbon-free energy sources,” the release states. “The critical elements processed at the White Mesa Mill are used to create wind turbines, electric vehicle motors and to fuel carbon-free nuclear power. We are proud to call San Juan County home and are excited about what the future holds for the region.”
Half the mill’s employees are Indigenous, said CEO Mark Chalmers, during a recent tour of the mill by The Journal.