More than 70 protesters gather at White Mesa to protest mill operations

Members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and environmental activists participated in an annual protest of operations at the White Mesa Mill on October 22. 
More than 70 protestors walked five miles from the Community Center in White Mesa along Highway 191 to the entrance site at the mill.
The Energy Fuels facility is the only licensed and operating conventional uranium mill in the United States.
The event was organized by the White Mesa Concerned Community, a group of White Mesa residents concerned about the impacts of the mill.
The event was also sponsored by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and Environmental protection groups including the Grand Canyon Trust, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and Indigenous Environmental Network along with others.
Event organizers say they are concerned about contamination from the nearby uranium mill and the desecration of sacred sites and cultural resources.
In a statement, Energy Fuels said they support the right to free speech and peaceful protest.
“As part of our commitment to authentic engagement with the community, we continue to foster a constructive dialogue that is grounded in facts,” the release states.
“We hear the concerns of a limited number of community members from neighboring Tribes, and we will continue our outreach to address those concerns and address inaccurate statements used by those who do not understand our mission.
“We welcome the opportunity to meet with any party via personal meetings, calls and/or tours of the mill to help them understand what we do and how we impact the local area.”
Speaking at the October 22 event, organization leader Yolanda Badback said the protest of the mill is the continued work of her late uncle Norman Begay who opposed the mill at its creation in the1980’s.
“I know Blanding’s for the mill because it’s for jobs that they need, but they don’t know what we go through every day here in our community by being polluted by the air when it shifts our direction and our well water we rely on here in our community.”
Also speaking at the event was Badback’s mother, Thelma Whiskers, who thanked the group for coming to the event.
“Good to see you, all of you people here. I know the gas is so expensive and good to see you supporting us.”
The White Mesa mill is monitored and regulated by governmental agencies to ensure health and safety in the area including the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
Among those regulations include regular testing of wells near the site for excessive contaminants in the water. The last citation from the state of Utah regarding water quality was issued in 2013 for failing to provide a plan and time schedule for the assessment of the source, extent, and potential dispersion of contamination in one of the monitoring wells.
Despite that, Badback says that many White Mesa residents avoid drinking water from the tap. 
In December 2021 Energy Fuels was cited for a violation of the Clean Air Act by the EPA for emissions of Radon as a result of a lack of liquid cover at the mill’s tailings Cell 4B.
The EPA ruling came as a surprise to Energy Fuels. The company says during a 2019 visit, the EPA performed tests in the ponds and determined that exposed evaporative crystals in tailings Cell 4B did not need to be covered due to no significant emission of Radon.
In March 2022, the EPA said they did share imprecise language in their 2019 communications, clarifying that “this interpretation was intended only to address the formation of the material on the steeply sloped sides of the impoundment.”
The company and the EPA went back and forth on the issue, with the EPA dropping the term “egregious” from the violation. However, the EPA is still requiring the company to cover the cell with liquid.
Energy Fuels officials reported in August that they are in the process of refilling Cell 4B although they say the process will take months as they pump water from their well amidst the drought in the area.
The White Mesa Mill processes Uranium and Vanadium, and recently ventured into the Rare Earth Elements market, preparing materials for use in computers and electric vehicles. The mill is poised for growth with potential for increased interest in domestic supplies of Uranium and Rare Earth Elements.
In a statement the company said the  “health and safety of our employees, members of the community and the environment are fundamental to everything we do at the White Mesa Mill.
“As San Juan County’s primary economic engine, the White Mesa Mill represents an opportunity for Southeastern Utah to play a key role in the country’s transition to clean, carbon-free energy sources.
“The critical elements processed at the White Mesa Mill are used to create wind turbines, electric vehicle motors and to fuel carbon-free nuclear power. We are proud to call San Juan County home and are excited about what the future holds for the region.”
The Mill also recently announced the formation of its local advisory board for the San Juan County Clean Energy Foundation which plans to distribute millions of dollars to grant applicants in San Juan County.

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