Equilibrium & Sustainability

Uranium mill adjacent to Bears Ears has become a ‘radioactive waste dump’: report

The White Mesa uranium mill, located just a mile from Bears Ears National Monument, now houses more than 700 million pounds of toxic waste — making the Utah desert site “America’s cheapest radioactive waste dump,” a new report has found.

Among the contents of the dump are remnants of the World War II-era Manhattan Project, as well as radioactive waste from around the country, according to the report, which was published on Monday by the Grand Canyon Trust. While the White Mesa Mill was built to process uranium ore, the site eventually became home to a waste-disposal service, despite its proximity to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s White Mesa Community.

“Polluters are finding that the cheapest place to send unwanted radioactive waste is the White Mesa Mill — but it’s not a waste dump, it’s a uranium mill,” Tim Peterson, director of cultural landscapes at the Grand Canyon Trust, said in a statement. “If the White Mesa Mill wants to act like a radioactive waste dump, it should be regulated like one.”

The Grand Canyon Trust, based in Arizona, is an environmental advocacy nonprofit focused on Grand Canyon and Colorado Plateau conservation.

Bears Ears has received increased attention in recent years after the Trump administration reduced the boundaries of the monument by about 85 percent in 2017. President Biden officially restored environmental protections to Bears Ears in October, describing the spot as “a sacred homeland to hundreds of generations of native peoples,” as The Hill reported.

The adjacent White Mesa Mill first received its license to process uranium ore, including from Grand Canyon region mines, in 1980, according to the report. Only toward the end of that decade did the mill begin accepting low-level radioactive waste from contaminated military and industrial sites. Doing so, the authors explained, allowed the mill to charge a fee for processing and disposal.

Three decades later, the mill is continuing to profit from this model — extracting small amounts of uranium from the waste and then dumping the leftovers in on-site waste ponds, the report found. This business earns the mill’s owner between $5 million and $15 million every year, the authors wrote, citing a 2020 earnings call with Energy Fuels Inc. executives.

Although the White Mesa Mill is operating as a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility, it is licensed only as a uranium mill and therefore has needed to obtain repeat amendments to its operating license in order to accept waste, according to the authors.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensed and regulated the mill until 2004, after which Utah became an “agreement state” — a state that has signed an agreement with the commission to regulate radioactive materials. Yet despite Utah’s early opposition to the transport of radioactive waste into its territory, state regulators have continued to approve the license amendments, some of which are valid for decades, the report found.

“As the uranium market shifts amid the transition away from fossil fuels, two years of COVID disruption, and the attack on Ukraine, the White Mesa Mill must stand as a cautionary tale for decision-makers of how domestic mineral production is not, by its very nature, a boon,” Amber Reimondo, energy director for Grand Canyon Trust, said in a statement.

“We have much work to do to genuinely ensure social and environmental justice in America’s energy transition,” she added.

The report said the site expanded its work in accepting radioactive waste, not only from facilities across America, but also from international origins.

The White Mesa Mill owner received approval from the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control in July 2020 to accept waste from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency’s uranium mines, although these materials had not yet arrived as of December, the authors found, citing public records.

Utah also approved the receipt of waste from Estonia’s Silmet OÜ rare earth metals processing plant in July, but these materials also have yet to appear, according to the report.

White Mesa Mill’s waste ponds covered about 275 acres as of 2021 and sit above the nearby Navajo Aquifer, which supplies drinking water to the White Mesa Community and to southeastern Utah and northern Arizona, including part of the Navajo Nation, the report stated.

The authors described the waste ponds — some of which lack modern liners — as “a toxic and radioactive goulash” that contains a variety of heavy metals classified as human carcinogens, as well as nitrate and chloroform plumes.

While scientists remain uncertain about how far and fast pollutants could travel if leaks from the ponds occurred, White Mesa Community members continue to express concern about the safety of their drinking water, according to the report.

“Our water quality is really doomed when we have operations like the White Mesa Mill,” Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, former member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council and former co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, said in a statement. “We’re very tied to our land.”

“We’re very tied to our culture,” she continued. “It’s our identity. It’s very important that we protect every aspect of our natural resources, our air and our water.”

A 2011 U.S. Geological Survey study identified the potential for contaminants to migrate from the mill and into the environment, while a 2018 report from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s Environmental Programs Department showed rising levels of acidity in area springs, the authors noted.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency prohibited the mill from accepting waste from federal hazardous waste sites in December, due to concerns about the emission of toxic radon gas, that order does not bar other radioactive waste deliveries, the authors stressed.

“Uranium and the mill represent environmental injustice that continues to be endured by the county’s Indigenous and low-income populations,” Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy of the San Juan County Commission said in a statement.

Arguing that this uranium mill “would not be allowed to operate near a wealthy white neighborhood in Salt Lake City,” Maryboy stressed that the county’s Native American populations “deserve nothing less.”

In response to the report’s findings, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control affirmed the White Mesa Mill’s adherence to state and national exposure regulations.

“We have not had the opportunity to review the Grand Canyon Trust report, but we can confirm that Energy Fuels, White Mesa Mill is a highly regulated facility in compliance with all Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) permissible exposure limits and all State and Federal regulations, including a stringent groundwater permit issued by the state,” a statement from the Division said.

But Maryboy emphasized his concern about the possibility that pollution could end up in the groundwater and flow down to the San Juan River.  

“Every Labor Day, White Mesa has a Bear Dance that many of my community members participate in, and you can smell the cloud that comes from the mill,” he said.

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