Energy Fuels has big plans for White Mesa Mill

Energy Fuels Inc. announced the creation of a new foundation, along with highlighting new strategies for their company moving forward, at a two-day open house last week.

On Thursday and Friday, September 16 and 17, the company played host to investors, partners, the Department of Energy, presidents of the Utah and Colorado mining associations, and county residents at their White Mesa Uranium Processing Mill south of Blanding.

During the open house, the organization announced the formation of a new foundation aimed to contribute to communities located near the mill.

Last week, the company deposited $1 million into the San Juan County Clean Energy Foundation. They also announced that they anticipate contributing ongoing annual funding to the foundation, equal to one percent of future mill revenues.

Energy Fuels says the foundation will focus on supporting education, the environment, health/wellness, and economic advancement in the City of Blanding, San Juan County, the White Mesa Ute Community, the Navajo Nation, and other area communities.

Energy Fuels CEO Mark Chalmers said the communities that surround the facility deserve to share the benefits of its future.

“We see San Juan County as becoming a critical minerals hub for the US,” said Chalmers. “And we believe the Foundation is truly the best way to make an impact and difference in the lives of those who work alongside us as we pursue these goals.”

As part of the announcement, Blanding Mayor Joe B. Lyman said over the past year the company has met with local leaders to understand and identify needs in the area.

“The formation of the Foundation is a culmination of these efforts,” said Lyman, “and the beginning of a long-term commitment to improve the quality of life for everyone in the San Juan County area to help us reach our full potential.”

The foundation will have a community-based advisory board to help determine how to best allocate funds.

At the open house, Energy Fuels also highlighted their involvement in providing internship and training opportunities for local high school students through a program operated by the Foundation for Indigenous Education, Leadership Development, and Sustainability (FIELDS).

In addition to the announcement of the creation of the foundation, the open house was held to highlight new strategies for the company going forward.

Energy Fuels announced its venture into the Rare Earth industry in April 2020. 

Processing a mineral known as monazite from domestic and foreign mining operations, the company will be able to extract uranium and a product known as rare earth materials from the monazite.

Rare earth materials are used in a variety of technologies, including smartphones, computers, electric vehicles, and are even being investigated for use in the production of medical isotopes for new cancer therapies.

While rare earth materials can be found in other mines, only Energy Fuels is licensed to safely extract the materials from monazite, as there are uranium byproducts found in monazite sands.

Starting in January 2021, Energy Fuels began receiving shipments of monazite from Florida and Georgia. Energy Fuels separates uranium from monazite to produce a rare earth element product known as rare earth carbonate at the White Mesa Mill. 

The mill says they’ve produced around 300 tons, or about 600,000 pounds, of the product. The product is being shipped to a facility in the country of Estonia in Europe, where it is further prepared for use in new materials.

In addition to new products, the mill continues to produce uranium and vanadium.

“This is an exciting time for all of us at Energy Fuels in both the uranium and rare earth sectors,” said Chalmers. “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.”

In January 2020, Energy Fuels let go of 24 of its then 79 employees. As of today, the mill reports employing 52 people, but they share a vision of adding more than 100 new jobs.

To do that, the company says in the coming years they plan to make investments in infrastructure to expand their rare earth processing capabilities. 

Instead of sending rare earth products to Estonia, the elements could be further prepared for use at a nearby site, possibly in San Juan County. If the site is created and operational, it would mean dozens of additional jobs.

Part of the company optimism for the future stems from federal programs looking to decrease foreign dependency on both uranium and rare earth elements.

Both Senators from Utah – Mike Lee and Mitt Romney – as well as Utah’s Third Congressional district representative John Curtis, spoke virtually at the open house.

All three elected federal representatives from the area spoke in favor of the mill’s expansive efforts.

In a short presentation, Senator Romney said Utah holds higher global standards for environmental protection and sustainability, as well as human rights than China. 

“[China] currently
dominates the global
rare earth market and our dependency on them increases risks to the climate and to our national security,” said Romney. “The work being done at the White Mesa Mill will help change this dynamic.”

A member of the U.S. Department of Energy also delivered a virtual address at the open house.

Dr. Kathryn Huff, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy, said nuclear energy working in tandem with other clean energy sources is the only way to reach the administration’s ambitious goals to significantly decrease carbon emissions.

“Carbon-free nuclear power is an absolutely critical part of the decarbonization equation, and today nuclear energy produces about one-third of the world’s non-emitting electricity,” said Huff. “In the US, nuclear energy contributes more than half of our clean electricity and operates reliably.”

Huff continued, “We expect the demand for uranium will increase. There’s no doubt that a viable supply chain for uranium-based reactor fuels will be critical to the success of [our clean energy] transition.”

Uranium prices have been on the rise as of late, reaching a seven-year high in September. In other promising financial news, the company announced in October 2020 that they were debt-free.

While Energy Fuels is optimistic for the future, the uranium industry faces distrust from many San Juan County residents as a result of a half-century of poor health impacts from uranium mining and milling.

Poor health and safety regulations and aggressive mining of uranium in the Four Corners area during the Cold War yielded detrimental health results to county residents, including higher than normal cancer rates.

Chalmers himself says he remembers the lack of regulations and oversight when he first began working in uranium mines in the 1970s. Since that time, Chalmers says safety regulations have improved dramatically to high standards today.

Part of the improved safety features includes required bonding of companies that hold funds or pay insurers to pay for cleanups of mining sites, if needed.

While operations at Energy Fuels have been protested in recent years by members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in White Mesa, as well as other environmental advocacy groups, Energy Fuels says they should not be blamed for the misdeeds of other organizations in the past.

The company has received one citation and no fines since 2013 from the State of Utah, who oversees safety regulations.

As reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, violations cited by the Utah Division of Environmental Quality (DEQ) at the mill have dropped significantly under Energy Fuels ownership.

The White Mesa Mill’s previous owners – Denison Mines – were cited more than 30 times by the DEQ from 2007 to 2012 and fined more than $100,000.

In a December 2020 meeting, San Juan County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes asked Chalmers about the possibility of harmful contaminants leaking through containment ponds into local aquifers.

Chalmers said he “absolutely recognizes and respects people’s fears,” but added that regulations from the State of Utah have not shown dangerous contaminants entering into the area aquifer.

“There is no record of these cells leaking,” Chalmers said. “But I want to say, [producing rare earth elements] creates opportunity to create new cells in time and other opportunities. I’m committed to that.”

Energy Fuels also has expressed interest in aiding the Navajo Nation and the Environmental Protection Agency in efforts to clean up abandoned uranium mines.

The company says they can accept the material and use existing infrastructure to recycle and recover uranium from the sites, Energy Fuels is already assisting with a private mine cleanup in New Mexico.

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