Executives of a Colorado company that runs a controversial uranium mill in rural Utah say opponents of the mill don’t understand their safety measures and how vital the site is to the larger, nationwide push for clean energy.
The company, Lakewood-based Energy Fuels, has long come under fire for milling uranium at the site in southeastern Utah and for storing radioactive material there — some of it from overseas. The site sits about 5 miles from White Mesa, Utah, home to a community of members of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. In late October, a group of more than 100 demonstrators marched to the site to protest the mill’s presence near the community — a march they have made annually since 2017.
Mark Chalmers, CEO of Energy Fuels, said “there's really no safer place” to put radioactive waste — what they call tailings — than the mill site. Chalmers explained that the mill “recycles” waste with low levels of radioactivity, so that recovered uranium can be used in nuclear-energy projects — which the company believes will only become more important as the demand for carbon-free energy grows.
“This is a good news story,” Chalmers said. “This is one of the best good news stories for reducing carbon emissions and improving electrification in the entire United States.”
He added that Energy Fuels is one of the largest employers and tax payers in rural San Juan County, Utah, with about 75 employees. The company estimates about half its workforce is Native American.
Meanwhile, the 2,000-person Ute Mountain Ute tribe has made several written declarations opposing the mill, in addition to their annual marches. They’ve also had some success in blocking activity at the site in past decades, when they got government backing to stop thousands of truckloads of tailings from entering the site. The protesters and tribal leaders alike say they’re worried about potential health impacts from the mill.
The mill is located a mile away from the edge of Bears Ears National Monument and the ancestral homeland of other tribes, including Hopi, Navajo, Ute and Zuni.
“Let's put it in their backyards and see how they feel,” said Rebecca Hammond, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe with family from White Mesa, during last month’s march to the mill.
Michael Badback, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe who lives in White Mesa, has been fighting against the mill for years. He worries that the mill has caused an increase in asthma in the community’s children and cancer in the general population. He’s frustrated that there haven’t been any recent studies looking at the mill’s potential health impacts.
“But hopefully they'll start picking that up and finding out what's really going on with our health,” he said.
In fact, a federal study is due out in 2025 looking at exactly that.
Scott Clow, the tribe’s environmental programs director, said that he’s been made aware of “upticks” of cancer in the community in the last decade but that the cause is unclear.
“It’s a challenging thing to say, you know, people are being hurt by your business next door when we can't prove that health connection,” he said. He added that further research is needed, which the tribe is planning beyond the federal study. To aid in some of that research, the EPA has given the tribe a $75,000 planning grant.
Clow also pointed to the lack of trust he believes many tribal members have with the mill and Energy Fuels. The Environmental Protection Agency notified Energy Fuels last year that a pond it uses to store radioactive waste was not in compliance with federal law on proper storage of the material, leading to higher than allowable radon emissions, and in 2015 and 2016, two trucks from a Wyoming-based company leaked radioactive waste on their way to the mill. Even though these trucks didn’t pass through the White Mesa community, Clow believes the tribe should have been notified.
“Just saying nothing just leads to speculation and mistrust,” he said.
Energy Fuels has agreed to notify the tribe if there are future spills and says there have been no such incidents in more than five years.
Whether the mill could affect the tribe’s water supply is another big question posed by the mill opponents. Clow said studies of the tribe’s drinking water do not show concerning levels of contaminants, but he worries about the possibility of future contamination from a few of the mill’s oldest holding cells for waste. Newer cells have leak-detection technology. Energy Fuels, however, says that monitoring wells surrounding the cells show no evidence of leaking and stresses that the mill follows all state environmental guidelines.
“Nobody's ever been able to bring any evidence or scientific data or anything to show that all those horrible things that some people think that we're doing is actually true,” said Curtis Moore, the company’s vice president of marketing. Instead, he believes people are “just kind of speculating out of thin air.”
As for the protesters’ demands for the mill to be closed or moved, Moore said he believes that’s a total nonstarter. He estimates the process would cost millions or billions of dollars and more than a decade to complete. Instead, the company is looking to expand its operations at the mill and is planning to invest close to $1 million into the facility to increase its rare-earth metal business. Those materials are used in tech devices and clean-energy technology.
Moore said the mill is a “good neighbor” to White Mesa, and that Energy Fuels is providing important support for surrounding communities.
He stressed that in addition to bringing jobs with salaries “well above” the region’s average, the company has started a new foundation to support “education, the environment, health/wellness, and economic advancement” in the area. He said they’ve seeded the foundation with $1 million and are planning to contribute a portion of the company’s annual revenues from the mill — 1 percent — in the future.
The company says it also has been supporting STEM education for kids in nearby Blanding, Utah.
“We're really trying to make San Juan County into this clean energy hub for the whole United States,” Moore said.
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