Energy Fuels plans to process monazite sands
Energy Fuels has announced plans to begin processing monazite sands at their White Mesa Mill in San Juan County. The sands will be used to produce a mixed rare earth element used in many modern technologies.
The company announced a three-year agreement with The Chemours Company to acquire a minimum of 2,500 tons per year of natural monazite sands from a plant in Georgia.
Energy Fuels estimates they will create close to 10 percent of the total current U.S. demand for rare earth elements used in a variety of technologies, from cell phones to electric vehicles and medicines.
The permit to bring the sands into San Juan County was approved by the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control.
The validity of the permit is being disputed by Uranium Watch, a Moab-based nonprofit that advocates for protection of public health and the environment from nuclear production, milling, and disposal.
Presenting to the San Juan County Commission on December 15, Energy Fuels CEO Mark Chalmers said the company hopes to ramp up production to get to 50 percent of the U.S. production of rare earth materials by the following year.
Energy Fuels became debt free earlier this year, and Chalmers says they plan to create upwards of 100 new high paying jobs in the county, at a salary of around $50-60k a year with benefits, in the coming years.
Chalmers also shared with the commission Energy Fuels’ continued commitment to working with local stakeholders and communities.
As part of that, Chalmers said Energy Fuels is committed to helping clean up abandoned uranium mines in the county, and they are supportive of a thoughtful re-evaluation of the current size of Bears Ears National Monument. Chalmers also said Energy Fuels never opposed the designation of the monument.
The White Mesa Mill is the only fully licensed and operating conventional uranium mill in the United States. It is located on White Mesa between Blanding and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe community of White Mesa.
Conservation groups, such as Uranium Watch and The Grand Canyon Trust, have said the mill has had adverse effects on the health of its neighbors.
A virtual rally was held earlier this month to protest the continued processing taking place at the mill.
At the county commission meeting, Chalmers claimed that, despite accusations, there is no evidence of uranium tailings leaking out of the containment cells into the underground aquifer.
“We are willing to work with conservation groups to achieve positive outcomes here, but honesty is a must. It must be fact based,” Chalmers said. “We shouldn’t be criticized for polluting if we’re not polluting.”
Chalmers added 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 aquifer.
The state recently drilled two wells between the White Mesa community and White Mesa mill to continue to monitor the water in the area for impacts from the mill.
At the December 9 meeting, San Juan County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes asked Chalmers when older storage cells holding tailings might be addressed.
Chalmers says improvements in technology and design for mills and radioactive storage could be implemented in the future.
“Now 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.”
Commissioner Grayeyes responded by sharing his concern for downstream residents.
“There is a slope from the White Mesa Mill to the White Mesa Community all the way to Bluff,” said Grayeyes. “So in 100 years, what do we do to not impact at a high level the health and safety of those [future] generations?”
Grayeyes added “Those need to be considered into the planning of any dangerous substance that the company is producing to satisfy their pockets.”
Chalmers said when uranium mining and milling in the area began in the 1940s and 50s, there were no regulations or protections in place. Now Chalmers says that as the largest private employer in the county, Enery Fuels is committed to the future prosperity of the county.
“We are not going to do things that are going to harm people or pollute the environment that will provide a future for the people in the county,” said Chalmers.
Commissioner Kenneth Maryboy added his experiences with uranium production in the 20th Century.
“When I used to go to school in Bluff Elementary, there was a whole slough of semi-trucks going through Bluff right in front of the elementary school,” said Maryboy. “There used to be these materials that would fall off.
“Now I know it was yellow cake – nobody told us not to play with it. We’d mark on the road and play with it all day long.
“Sometimes we’d take it home when it’s cold. When that stove gets hot and red you move it onto there. That thing starts glowing with all these different effects on it.
“Nobody is going to talk about that. Just like years from now nobody is going to talk about who made the decision to make these things happen.”
Maryboy shared his frustration with people passing blame for adverse health conditions in the county while residents pay the price.
“The kids I played with back then, a lot of them are gone,” said Maryboy. “From some kind of a cancer or illness, and nobody wants to talk about that. It’s got to be somebody else’s fault.”