On a warm, windy Saturday in May, some 80 people set forth from the community center in White Mesa, Utah, marching north on the side of Highway 191 in a long line. The people were a mixture of Native Americans and non-Natives, young and old, locals and visitors – even a film-maker from Australia. They were headed to the White Mesa uranium mill, the only conventional uranium mill still operating in the United States.
Many carried signs and banners with messages such as “Water Is Life,” “No Water for Nukes,” and “No Uranium – Protect Sacred Land.” Drivers slowed to stare, often honking or waving.
“Because of our ancestors. That’s why I’m here,” said Malcolm Lehi, Ute Mountain Ute tribal member and former councilman, who walked bearing a golden flag with the tribe’s seal. “They played a big role in this walk that’s happening, this movement.
“Water is life. The womb is water. That’s really important to me as a Ute person and as a former leader.”
The march was organized by White Mesa Concerned Citizens, a grassroots group. It was co-sponsored by other environmental groups including Canyon Country Rising Tide, the Grand Canyon Trust, Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, Haul No, Living Rivers, and Uranium Watch.
“I lived here in White Mesa,” said Lorraine Jones, now of Towaoc, who was marching with a group of her extended family. “My daughter and I came to support our home town.”
“People say we benefit from the mill, but how?” asked another Ute tribal member as he marched. “We don’t get royalties from it. No Utes work there that I know of.”
How much they leak
White Mesa is a small cluster of homes and commercial buildings, easy to miss as you drive along Highway 191 between Bluff and Blanding, but it’s home to about 300 members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. (The larger part of their reservation is in Southwest Colorado, with Towaoc as its hub.)
The mill was built in 1979 on Ute ancestral lands a few miles outside the White Mesa reservation.
“There are sacred sites, burial sites, within the uranium mill,” said Lehi.
Although the facility is called the White Mesa Mill, it has nothing to do with the tribe, although there is a misperception that they are connected.
“The tribe has been accused of biting the hand that feeds it” for criticizing the mill, said Scott Clow, director of environmental programs for the Ute Mountain Utes. But the tribe doesn’t receive royalties or other funding from the operation. “There have been tribal members employed there on an individual basis, though I’m not sure there are any currently. Some county services like fire and police get tax revenues from it, so there is an indirect benefit, but the tribe as a whole doesn’t get any direct financial benefit from the mill.”
On the other hand, many Utes believe some potential harms could result from their close proximity to the facility.
One of their greatest concerns is the threat of groundwater contamination.
The mill is the only licensed and operational uranium mill in the country, meaning it can process uranium ore. It also handles some of what is called “alternate feed” (radioactive waste). Processing such material produces large quantities of waste, which is put into five open pits called impoundments. Three of those were built in the early 1980s (they’re sometimes called the “legacy cells”). Their liners consist of one thin, 30-mm layer of PVC, a type of plastic, that was said to have a functional life of about 20 years when the cells were built. (Two newer cells have double liners and a modern leak-detection system.)
The impoundments rest on a shallow “perched” aquifer called the Burro Canyon formation. (A perched aquifer is separated from an underlying aquifer, in this case the Navajo aquifer, by an unsaturated layer.) There are concerns that contaminants could seep into the Burro Canyon formation and return to the surface via springs and seeps.
Clow says one expert working with the tribe has said, “It’s not so much whether they’re leaking, it’s how much.”
“In his opinion,” Clow said, “you’re not going to be able to completely contain those [toxic] materials, especially with a 37-year-old PVC liner. He’s recommended, and we have asked the state to require, that they [the mill owners] test those liners to see what the integrity is. That hasn’t been successful.”
The three legacy cells do not have a leak-detection system.
Instead, Clow said, the mill installed groundwater wells between cells 1 and 2, between 2 and 3, and around the perimeter. “The water quality in those wells is the leak detection,” he said. “If the liquid becomes polluted, you have a leak.”
‘Alternate feed material’
The mill is owned by Energy Fuels Inc., a Canadian corporation with an office in Lakewood, Colo. It is seeking a renewal of its radioactive-material license from the state, as well as an amendment to the license that would allow it to process “alternate feed material” from a plant in Oklahoma owned by the Sequoyah Fuels Corp. The plant is being decommissioned and owners want to take the wastes – which contain uranium, thorium, and some non-radioactive metals – to the White Mesa Mill.
The mill also is seeking approval of a groundwater quality permit and reclamation plan.
The mill, then owned by Denison Mines, had applied for the license renewal in 2007, and the state took public comments in 2011. In 2012 Energy Fuels bought the mill. A new comment period is now open; recently the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Waste Management and Radiation extended the comment period to end July 31.
According to materials submitted by the mill as part of its 2007 renewal application, a small leak was discovered in one of the legacy cells in 2010. The liner had to be repaired twice and the mill was required to make changes to the way it monitored the cells.
The tribe remains understandably nervous about the possibility of more such leaks. Groundwater flows generally southward from the mill. The community of White Mesa lies to the southeast. Water in the monitoring well closest to the tribe, MW-22, is now showing degradation, according to Clow, with increasing acidity and the presence of certain metals.
“We’ve seen some trends we’re concerned about. The state says it’s a mile from the tailing cells so it’s a mystery [what is causing the degradation].
“We’re not going to buy that. We’re seeing things that don’t occur naturally, like high concentrations of manganese, higher than you would find naturally, beryllium, fluoride. Some of the alternative feeds they’re processing have high fluoride levels. That’s a concern for us.”
However, Clow said the state has not been diligent in making the mill owners address that concern.
“When you have a statistically significant trend [in water quality] and have exceeded compliance limits for consecutive quarters, they have to explain to the state how it’s happening. But they come up with all kinds of explanations.”
“To have a groundwater-well monitoring network and then to deny the groundwater is getting polluted is to say, ‘We’re ignoring our groundwater leakdetection system’,” Clow said.
In 2011, the tribe submitted extensive comments regarding the license renewal. In one submittal, the tribe called the results of tests at MW-22 “disturbing” because they “indicate that the groundwater aquifer is dangerously contaminated by the tailings impoundments.”
“The presence of tailings leachate in the groundwater at MW-22. . . is alarming due to the serious risk of pollutantmigration to springs around the mesa as well as to the deeper Navajo aquifer. . .,” the submittal states.
The Navajo aquifer is the main source of drinking water for much of southeast Utah and far northeast Arizona, including the towns of Bluff, Blanding, Kayenta, and Tuba City.
Clow says the tribe is also troubled by elevated levels of chloride and fluoride at MW-22 and another monitoring well. Chloride is easily carried by water and is often considered a tracer of groundwater flow. He said the mill’s owners have said previously that the presence of those elements would indicate a leak in the tailings impoundments, but now that they have shown up, the state and the mill are balking at drawing that conclusion.
Another concern is an underground plume of nitrate. Under a stipulated consent agreement with the state of Utah, the mill is actively remediating the decade- old plume, pumping contaminated water into a tailings impoundment.
Clow said nitrate is a constituent in the tailing cells, so when it shows up in groundwater, that indicates a problem. “There’s a lot of ammonium in the cells, and when it oxidizes, it turns into nitrate.
“Chloride and nitrate have always been identified as elements that if there is leakage, those are what we will see in the monitoring-well network. So, lo and behold, we have a nitrate plume that has overlap with a chloride plume.”
He said the owners and state ultimately decided the nitrate plume was coming from a tank that had leaked; however, that didn’t explain the chlorides.
“We asked the state, ‘Where did the chloride come from?’ The state says chloride isn’t a regulated parameter in the Drinking Water Act.”
The mill maintains the facility could not be the source for the nitrate and chloride because it is more than a mile away.
Clow said the tribe wants more research done into these and other issues, and would like more monitoring wells installed southeast of the facility.
Drinking water at White Mesa comes from the Navajo aquifer through two groundwater wells, and it currently has no problems related to the mill, according to Clow. “It meets the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act,” he said.
The water does have a bad odor and flavor because of the presence of iron, manganese and sulfur, he said, but the tribe is installing a water-treatment system with a grant from the USDA Rural Development Program, and that should help.
“We don’t have any indication the Navajo aquifer is affected [by the mill], but we are concerned about the long term,” Clow said. “If there are conduits between the Burro Canyon formation and the Navajo aquifer, it could become polluted in the long run.”
While the possibility of groundwater contamination is a primary concern, the tribe and others have additional worries. One is airborne contaminants.
Sarah Fields, program director for the nonprofit Uranium Watch, told the Free Press that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t require the mill to monitor the rate of airborne emissions from solid tailings in the new impoundments. She believes the state, however, can require that and should do so.
“If you don’t measure them, you don’t know what they are,” Fields said.
Clow said a study done for the tribe in 2008-10 by the U.S. Geological Survey, and others noted concerns about airborne deposition of uranium and vanadium downwind of the mill’s ore pad and stacks. “Downwind in the sediment and sagebrush, we identified a high concentration of uranium and vanadium and it was washing into a spring,” he said.
“A lot more research needs to be done,” Clow said, adding, “We are cognizant this isn’t cheap.”
In 2014, the Grand Canyon Trust sued the mill and Energy Fuels, saying its emissions of Radon-222 violate the Clean Air Act. Radon-222 is a cancer-causing gas emitted by radioactive wastes.
“Radon-222 atoms emitted from these tailings impoundments attach to airborne dust particles and can travel many miles in this form before decaying,” the complaint states. “EPA has found that ‘the relatively few people who live within a few kilometers of tailings piles may receive individual exposures as much as a hundred times the exposures to individuals at greater distances’.”
The mill disputes the claims in the lawsuit.
Another major issue is transportation of materials to the mill. The Navajo Nation has voiced strong concern over the possibility that trucks may be hauling uranium ore across its lands to the mill from a mine near the Grand Canyon. (Free Press, January 2017, http://fourcornersfreepress. com/?p=3404).
In 2015 and 2016, there were two leaks from trucks carrying materials to the mill from a uranium mine owned by Cameco Resources Inc. in Wyoming.
On Jan. 12 of this year, the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control was notified of an incident that day in which a van arrived at the White Mesa Mill with three barrels of radioactive materials, some solid and some liquid.
According to a report, the barrels contained “KOH alternate feed materials from Honeywell International” in Illinois.
When employees unloaded the barrels they realized one or two had rusted bottoms and were leaking, and the plastic sheeting beneath them had a hole. A radiation safety officer was notified and came to the site, but employees had already cleaned the van.
“The RSO indicated he was able to see visible evidence that the material had been able to leak from the van,” the report states, “but the area had been cleaned and no valid measurements or samples of the materials leaked from the van were able to be taken.”
However, the report states, it was likely only a small quantity of liquid escaped and it was diluted by rain and snow.
Because of such issues, Fields would like to see the state deny the license renewal, but if not, she said it should require better licensing conditions and better oversight. “I think they should deny their request to process waste material from Sequoyah Fuels,” she added. “Uranium mills were designed and licensed to process conventional uranium ore, not any kind of waste.”
“Our health is more important to us than anything,” said Lehi of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
“Health and life, and it all starts with water. And that’s what I’m fighting for – the drinking water for our community and surrounding communities like Bluff, Aneth, Mexican Hat. That’s the whole nature of this movement. It’s spiritual and sacred.”