More than 90 people gathered outside the White Mesa Community Center on the morning of May 13 and prepared to march five miles north to the White Mesa Mill.
Thelma Whiskers, cofounder of the White Mesa Concerned Community group that organized the protest, addressed the crowd, which held signs that read, “No Uranium, Protect Sacred Lands” and “Water is Life”.
Whiskers told supporters she has been speaking out against the White Mesa Mill and uranium trucking for decades.
“I’ve been living in White Mesa for over 60 years,” she said. “We’re here for our kids and grandkids. What we’re really worrying about is the water, and also the air. When the wind blows, the dust comes towards our reservation.”
Whiskers cited health problems among the community, including cancer and asthma, and expressed concerns that they could be linked to radon or other emissions from the mill.
Proponents of the mill say such worries are exaggerated and point out that the company behind the mill, the Canadian-owned Energy Fuels Inc, is a boon to the local economy.
The mill employs between 50 and 160 workers at any given time, including one current employee who is enrolled in the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. According to mill management, Energy Fuels paid more than $6 million in property taxes to San Juan County for mill and mine sites over a recent five-year period.
The mill currently processes uranium ore and “alternative feed material” (uranium-bearing radioactive waste) from as far away as New York state. After material passes through the mill, tailings are stored in 250 acres of impoundments surrounding the mill site.
The only conventional uranium mill still licensed to operate in the U.S., White Mesa Mill has faced increased scrutiny in recent years, including being subject to an ongoing civil suit brought by the Grand Canyon Trust over alleged violations of the Clean Air Act for excessive radon emissions.
For residents of White Mesa, the battle goes back decades. Members of the 300-person community have long worried the proximity of the mill, which is located just beyond the reservation boundaries and sits above their drinking water aquifer, puts their air quality in danger and could eventually lead to contamination of the town’s water resources.
In 1995, Ute activist Norman Begay led a successful campaign to stop radioactive tailings associated with the Monticello Uranium Mill from being trucked to the White Mesa Mill for processing and storage.
At the march, White Mesa resident Ephraim Dutchie, Begay’s nephew, spoke about carrying on his late uncle’s legacy. Dutchie said the mill doesn’t employ anyone from White Mesa, yet it’s the closest community to the mill.
“If this mill were operating anywhere else in the U.S., it would have been shut down,” Dutchie said. “But it’s near an Indian reservation, so they don’t care.”
Dutchie added he was pleased with the large turnout that consisted mostly of members of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, but also activists from the Navajo-run Haul No! uranium awareness campaign and people from as far away as Australia. “This isn’t a movement unless we all work together,” Dutchie said.
Sarah Fields of Uranium Watch said the state of Utah is in the process of renewing the mill’s radioactive material license, and public comment is being accepted through June 30.
“I would think the community would want to weigh in on the mill’s reclamation plan because that waste is going to be here forever,” Fields said.
A 2016 report issued by Energy Fuels stated estimated closure costs for the mill at $22.6 million and said, “Financial assurances are in place for the total amount.”
But Energy Fuels added, “There can be no assurance that the ultimate cost of such reclamation obligations will not exceed the estimated liability.” Other estimates have placed the final amount at over $100 million.
Scott Clow, the Environmental Programs Director for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, said groundwater contamination is a concern, not just during reclamation but while the mill is still operating.
He explained that three of the five impoundment cells surrounding the mill have outdated leak prevention and leak detection systems. These cells have single-layer plastic liners, which were rated to a 20-year lifespan when they were installed over 35 years ago.
“To say these cells aren’t leaking is absurd,” said Clow. “The question is how much they’re leaking and what’s leaking.”
Clow worries the numerous monitoring wells around the cells will only detect a leak after it’s permeated through the groundwater, potentially leading, in the long term, to contamination of a deeper aquifer that supplies drinking water to communities in southeast Utah.
Mill management responded, “Look at the data. It’s all public record. All indications are that everything is good. We’re not saying these cells could never leak, but we’re saying we’re doing everything the right way, and there’s no indication that there is any cause for alarm.”
According to publicly available state records, White Mesa Mill was cited by the state for violating water-quality regulations on 28 occasions between 1999 and 2013. Mill management said those violations have been remediated.
“We’re very regulated,” they said. “We have dozens of groundwater monitoring wells. We have multiple air monitoring stations. We’re in compliance. We’re doing what we’re supposed to do and we’re proud to be doing that.”
There is no evidence that White Mesa’s drinking water aquifer has been contaminated.
Still, Clow would like to see stronger safety standards in place. He said the tribe hopes “the new permit will reduce groundwater pollution by implementing more corrective actions.”
The protesters arrived at the mill on Saturday afternoon, and pushed past two mill employees who had parked their trucks across the entrance road. Chants of “water is life” rose from the crowd.
A Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement officer, who had escorted protesters during the march, and a sheriff deputy headed off the protesters.
For a moment, tensions escalated as protesters argued they should be able to take their march up to the locked gates of the mill.
The BIA officer said marchers were on a private driveway and asked them to turn back. The crowd eventually returned to the side of the highway where tribal members sang traditional songs.
Former Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Councilman Malcolm Lehi said the last year has been an awakening for tribal ancestors.
Lehi explained the mill was constructed on tribal burial grounds and historic Ute hunting grounds, calling the area “sacred and powerful”.
“I saw a vision as we were walking,” Lehi said after the march. “It was a calmness, a whisper in the wind. I could hear the ancestors were with us.”
Written comments regarding the White Mesa Mill’s license renewal can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org until June 30. Public hearings will be held in Salt Lake City on June 8 and Blanding on June 15.