In White Mesa, Utah, at America’s last uranium mill, a pool of toxic waste is emitting dangerous amounts of radon to the surrounding communities, among them the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. This isn’t news: In November 2021, High Country News reported on the improperly stored waste and its impacts on the community, and in December — thanks to EcoFlight’s aerial photography and a proactive tribal government — the Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice to Energy Fuels Resources, ordering it to address the issue. Five months later, however, the improper storage practices persist.
In March, follow-up aerial shots from EcoFlight revealed a noticeable difference between the photograph taken in August 2021; the tailings cells, which consist of radioactive waste typically submerged in liquid from the uranium processing, have since decreased even further, increasing the amount of exposed toxic compounds. The visual evidence arrived two months after EPA representatives visited the site on Jan. 13. At the time, it was estimated that 60% of Cell 4B was uncovered. In a March letter from the EPA, the agency reported that Energy Fuels’ explanation of this decline is due to water conservation practices and extracting vanadium from the liquid, a rare earth mineral, for profit.
While efforts are currently underway to hold the mill accountable, Scott Clow, the Ute Mountain’s Environmental Programs director, says that the company wants to be in business until it is no longer profitable.
“There is a lot of uncertainty. We do know that when, eventually, the owners of that mill find it is no longer profitable to operate, and they will close it, they will be required to spend what they have set aside in a bond to do as much as they can for reclaiming it safely,” Clow said. “And then it’ll be the responsibility of the Department of Energy under their legacy program — and our tax dollars — to pay for it.”
Complicating matters is the possibility that the Biden administration’s Department of Energy will establish a strategic uranium reserve, which would increase the domestic stockpile of uranium — but at a cost. Uranium mines would be able to begin operating and funnel ore to the White Mesa mill for processing. According to Amber Reimondo, the energy policy director at the Grand Canyon Trust, it doesn’t immediately pose problems for White Mesa residents, but might present long-term ecological and community health problems. Reimondo doesn’t believe it makes sense for uranium mines in the U.S. to begin extraction when the quality of the uranium here is lower, and it’s more expensive than it would be coming from countries like Australia or Canada.
“We did a lot of work at the beginning of the Biden administration trying to help decision-makers understand the implications of something like that,” Reimondo told HCN. “Especially because so (many) of the uranium deposits in the United States are either on or near tribal lands.”
This would further compound the concerns of local residents — concerns that are echoed throughout the Southwest. The Pinyon Plain Mine, located near the Havasupai Tribe and close to the Grand Canyon, is also owned by Energy Fuels. The Pinyon Mine recently received approval from Arizona for an aquifer permit. Carletta Tilousi, who served on the Havasupai Tribe’s council in Arizona, told HCN that if the strategic uranium reserve is established, the Pinyon Plain Mine would resume operations.
“If the uranium from Pinyon Plain mine goes (to White Mesa) and contaminates people, we feel responsible — Havasupai people feel responsible — because if we don’t stop it from our end, then it’s going to contaminate other human lives,” Tilousi said. “And that’s something that the Havasupai elders would always stress, that we can’t just sit back and not say anything on this end in the cycle of uranium process.”
Tilousi added that Havasupai communities have previously experienced negative impacts from the mine, including onsite water contamination and destruction of the nearby sacred mountain Red Butte.
In an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing in late March, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., voiced his support for prioritizing domestic mineral supply chains to curb U.S. reliance on Russian minerals, including uranium. “They don’t understand that human life, water and animal life is so important here,” Tilousi said.
Meanwhile, Clow’s department has secured a small grant from the EPA that will enable the tribe to find a qualified candidate to design an epidemiological study of the direct and indirect health effects the White Mesa Mill has had on local residents, as well as its environmental impacts on the land. The study will look at the impacts of living in close proximity to the mine; for example, it will calculate the economic cost to community members who have to purchase bottled water because the local water supply is undrinkable. It will also examine how Native residents are affected when they are forced to cease traditional activities, such as picking plants for medicine.
Ultimately, the community will end up having to bear the costs of far-off industries, both nationally and globally, whether the nuclear waste comes from countries like Japan and Estonia or from nuclear power plants on the East Coast. “The initial mass and impact on the environment and public health are here,” in the West, Clow said. “And then the end impact is here” — also in the West.