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White Mesa Mill in southeast Utah enters the rare earth market

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. (Courtesy Energy Fuels)
Energy Fuels seeks to create a domestic supply; industrial plant near Ute Mountain tribe has divisive history

Energy Fuels has added production of rare earth elements to its sometimes controversial White Mesa uranium mill south of Blanding Utah.

The mill is the only conventional uranium mill operating in the U.S. and has had a mix of supporters and detractors over its lifetime – a divisiveness that continues.

Recently, the mill processed about 300 tons of a rare earth carbonate called monazite from mined ore shipped from Georgia, according to a Sept. 17 Energy Fuels news release.

The product is being sold and shipped to a facility in Europe, where it will be processed into separate rare earth oxides and compounds.

Rare earth elements are used in a wide range of products, including cell phones, computers, electric and hybrid vehicles, wind turbines and flat screen televisions and monitors.

The White Mesa uranium mill, south of Blanding, Utah, is the only conventional uranium mill operating in the country. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

Energy Fuels President and CEO Mark Chalmers said the new production creates a domestic supply chain for the essential mineral and could create more than 100 jobs at the White Mesa mill in San Juan County, Utah.

“This is an exciting time for all of us at Energy Fuels,” said Chalmers in a news release. “We believe the San Juan County community will benefit greatly from this rare earth initiative, as it will offer not only a safe, environmentally sensible, and domestically generated product, but it will also stimulate local employment and be an economic boost to the area.”

Energy Fuels officials hosted a public event and tours at the White Mesa Mill Sept. 16-17 to introduce the company’s plans for rare earth mineral production. It was also broadcast virtually.

White Mesa uranium mill south of Blanding, Utah, is the only conventional operating uranium mill in the nation.

During a speech, Chalmers said demand for rare earth minerals is expected to increase five-fold in the next 10 years. China dominates the mining and production of rare earths, he said, and Energy Fuels “is positioned to secure a domestic alternative.”

The White Mesa mill plans to produce up to 15,000 tons of monazite per year, which would provide for 50% of the U.S. demand.

“Energy Fuels and our partner, Neo Performance Materials, have made significant steps toward restoring critical U.S. and European rare earth supply chains,” Chalmers said.

Monazite contains low levels of naturally occurring radioactive elements, including uranium, which will also be recovered during the milling process. The extracted uranium, called yellow cake, is shipped for further processing into fuel rods for nuclear power plants.

Energy Fuels and the White Mesa Mill also are evaluating the recovery of thorium, which has potential uses in advanced nuclear technologies along with medical isotopes needed for emerging targeted cancer therapies.

Mill is either loved or hated

The White Mesa Mill has long had its supporters and detractors.

Supporters tout the good-paying jobs and property tax base it provides for San Juan County. They are encouraged by the mill’s plan to enter the rare earth market.

Detractors, including environmental groups and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which has a reservation near the mill, have concerns about environmental safety of the plant’s emissions and its older waste containment ponds.

Blanding Mayor Joe Lyman said Thursday the mill’s plan to expand production into rare earth elements “is encouraging” because of the jobs it would provide in an area with limited work opportunities.

“We need rare earth minerals, and this mill is in a position to provide that safely,” he said in an interview with The Journal. “Energy Fuels has shown innovation in getting into that market, and it will benefit our economy.”

The Ute Mountain Ute tribe has a reservation community, also called White Mesa, a few miles south of the uranium mill.

The tribe has long been concerned about chemicals stored in containment ponds, as well as emissions from mill operations, said Yolanda Badback, of the group, White Mesa Concerned Community.

“The pond liners were not meant to last this long, and we don’t believe they are adequate,” she told The Journal Thursday. “We want the mill cleaned up and moved. We are downstream of the mill, and want to protect our water source we rely on from wells.”

Concerned members of the White Mesa area will hold a spiritual walk to raise awareness about their environmental concerns on Oct. 9 at 11 a.m. Marchers will walk from the White Mesa Community Center to the mill entrance. After the walk, a light dinner and information presentation will take place at the community center.

Marchers protest at the White Mesa uranium mill every year in southeast Utah. (Journal file)