© 2022 KSUT Public Radio
NPR News and Music Discovery for the Four Corners
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Energy Fuels responds to uranium mill spiritual walk

Clark Adomaitis
Ute Mountain Ute and community members join the spiritual walk against White Mesa Uranium Mill.

On Saturday, October 22, the critics of the Energy Fuels Uranium Mill marched at White Mesa’s fourth annual peace walk and protest. They protested a radioactive waste dump and exposed uranium tailings at the mill.

The mill has been protested since it opened in 1979. The mill is located just five miles north of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe’s community in White Mesa, Utah.

Initially designed to process uranium ore, the mill now receives feeds of radioactive materials from around the world which it extracts uranium from. It disposed of the rest in containment cells, and has collected an estimated 700 million pounds according to the Grand Canyon Trust.

EcoFight aerial flyover White Mesa Mill - Energy Fuels Inc.
Courtesy Energy Fuels Inc.
EcoFight aerial flyover looking at White Mesa Mill

The tribe is concerned about the mill’s proximity. They cite issues of radon exposure, damage to their water supply, and the depreciation of wildlife.

Curtis Moore, Vice President of Marketing at Energy Fuels, says protesters have the details all wrong.

We support the free speech and the right to protest of the White Mesa community. But we also encourage protestors to learn more about what we do, and learn more about all the safety measures that are in place. There's no evidence that there's any problems out there.”

According to the EPA in a December 2021 letter, disposal pond 4B is partially uncovered and in violation of the Clean Air Act. The mill is working on refilling the pond, but will only be finished in March 2023. Protesters are concerned about radon emissions, which exposed uranium tailings emit.

However, Moore says the EPA had originally allowed them to expose it. In March a letter from Lee Ann B. Veal, the Director of the Radiation Protection Division at the EPA, Veal wrote the contents of the pond “were not solid material… that must remain below the liquid level.”

Clark Adomaitis
White Mesa Mill - Energy Fuels Inc. fence with a radioactive material caution sign.

Moore says pond 4B’s exposure was a misunderstanding. “We proved to the EPA back in 2016 17 18 19, that those crystals emit hardly any radon, Moore says.”

Thelma Whiskers, who lives at White Mesa, blames the mill for problems with her tap water.

“We have to run our water for about 15 minutes until the smell goes away, but we're still using it to wash our dishes, to take shower and to do our laundry,” Whiskers said at the protest.

Talia Boyd, a Navajo protester who traveled from Arizona to attend, says the facility is on top of the aquifer that brings the Navajo nation their water.

This aquifer provides groundwater to not only the Ute Mountain Ute but also Navajo, Hopi, and surrounding non-tribal communities. If it should be compromised, that impacts all of us adversely,” Boyd said.

Clark Adomaitis
Michael Badback on a backroads tour of the Energy Fuels uranium mill near his White Mesa home.

Energy Fuels says that the mill is not affecting the groundwater, and if it did that would be a violation against the State of Utah, which regulates the mill.

There's a shallow aquifer that occurs all over San Juan County, about 50 to 150 feet deep. It's not for drinking water – people water their cattle with it. It's naturally cloudy, and it smells like sulfur, it’s pretty bad water. The water is not cloudy and smelling like sulfur because of us.”

Activists will continue to protest operations at the mill. The next time they might take action is in January 2023, when the mill’s Groundwater Discharge Permit is up for renewal. Aaron Paul, attorney at the Grand Canyon Trust, says the public will be able to comment on how the mill may be affecting their groundwater.

“It's an opportunity for folks to weigh in both to express general opposition to the pollution that's already occurred at the mill, but also to make suggestions about what to do about it,” Paul said.

In the meantime, activists are continuing the decades-long fight to push for the mill to be permanently closed.

Clark Adomaitis is a Durango transplant from New York City. He is a recent graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, where he focused on reporting and producing for radio and podcasts. He reported sound-rich stories on the state of recycling and compost in NYC.
Related Stories