Marchers protest White Mesa mill
by Dan Toomey and Tommy Brooksbank, SJR/USC interns
Dozens of activists and White Mesa residents marched along Highway 191 Saturday demanding action against the White Mesa uranium mill.
The protest began at the White Mesa Community Center with participants sharing stories of alleged pollution caused by the mill’s uranium operations.
Protesters, many of whom represented the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, marched four miles to the mill’s entrance, beating drums to the sound of native chants.
“We need to get the word out about what’s been happening in our community because if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere,” White Mesa resident Gina Lopez said. “The mill needs to be responsible for its actions and stop polluting our water supply.”
The mill, owned by Colorado-based Energy Fuels Inc., has been mining and storing radioactive materials for 39 years.
The White Mesa Mill is the only operating uranium mill in the United States. It is located about three miles from the White Mesa community.
This is not the first time the Ute tribe has brought up water contamination. In a study by the United States Geological Survey, Ute residents of White Mesa expressed concern that aquifers located nearby the mill contained traces of toxic materials. These aquifers provide locals with water for drinking and agricultural use.
“I’m a water-quality scientist by trade before I retired and I know what uranium can do to public health. It’s not trivial,” participant Margie Lopez-Read said. “There’s one woman who got up to speak earlier who is disabled and she said it was chemically-related.”
Production at the mill is idle in the wake of stagnant uranium prices, but there is uranium stored at the mill. The radioactive material is contained in storage cells using a double- lining system meant to hold in process-liquids and radioactive waste.
But protest activists allege the storage cells are only single-lined, allowing radioactive materials to seep into the community’s groundwater.
“We’re downwind from the mine and it’s giving our people asthma and cancer from uranium getting into the groundwater,” White Mesa resident Sarah Collins said. “It’s harming our environment, my people, and our children.”
Some demonstrators remarked that racial tensions may be behind the silence that has met their complaints.
“The public needs to hear that we still have a Jim Crow existence here in San Juan County if you’re Native American or Mexican,” Lopez-Read said. “If it hurts Native Americans it doesn’t matter.”
Many demonstrators say they’ve voiced their concerns for a long time without any response.
“In the past several years we have had incidents and we have not always been informed immediately and it is a threat to our environment,” former leader of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk said. “The environmental protection agency, the nuclear regulatory commission, when they start crossing up the information and not giving complete direction...we’ve got an issue.”
Protesters said they plan to demonstrate against the mill in the future.
“This pollution has been going on since the late 60s,” Collins noted. “I feel like our generation needs to pick up where the older generation was and not stop fighting.”
Curtis Moore, a spokesman for Energy Fuels, said, “We are aware of the Tribes concerns, many of which were addressed in the recent license renewal process. Though, many people have other concerns that appear to be based on misinformation or misunderstandings about what we do at the mill.
“The White Mesa Mill has an exceptional record of safety and environmental compliance. It is heavily regulated by an array of state and federal regulators. We are extremely proud of the benefits we provide to the local community, including good jobs for local Native populations.”