Ute tribe challenges uranium-mill license renewal
But regulators dismiss the tribe’s concerns, saying White Mesa is following rules
Environmental safety standards at the White Mesa Uranium Mill in southeast Utah are inadequate, according to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which has a reservation community nearby.
According to public documents, the Colorado- based tribe, headquartered in Towaoc, is challenging the mill’s Radioactive Materials License renewal application currently being evaluated by the Utah Division of Radiation Control.
The mill – the only operating uranium mill in the country – produces refined uranium that is eventually manufactured into fuel rods for nuclear power plants. It is owned by Denison Mines USA, based in Toronto, Canada, and is located on Highway 191 between Bluff and Blanding.
The Ute Mountain Ute Environmental Programs Department has submitted volumes of comments on the five-year license renewal, claiming Denison Mines needs tougher environmental regulations, and the aging plant needs upgrading to protect the health of local residents.
The tribe specifically wants better controls for dust and improved waste facilities at the 32-year-old plant to safeguard surface and ground water.
But Denison’s CEO and Utah regulators say the mill operates within regulatory standards and has a good track record.
A request for an interview with environmental officials at the tribe was declined because tribal leaders instructed staff not to speak to the media on the matter. But Utah public records on the licensing-renewal process of the White Mesa Mill, which is not on Ute Mountain land, reveal tribal concerns.
The tribe presents studies indicating radioactive material and heavy metals from the plant are contaminating springs and land relied on by the roughly 200 residents living in the reservation community of White Mesa. The town is about three miles south of the uranium mill, and community members utilize springs, graze livestock and harvest traditional native plants throughout the region.
“The community of White Mesa depends on groundwater resources . . . for its municipal and domestic needs,” wrote Ute Mountain attorneys H. Michael Keller and Celene Hawkins in the comments. “Tribal members continue traditional practices which include hunting and gathering and using land, plants, wildlife and water in ways that are integral to their culture.
“It is reasonable to expect that those resources are not contaminated with hazardous materials that have blown in the wind or traveled through the groundwater from facilities regulated by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.”
But Denison Mines CEO Ron Hochstein told the Free Press the White Mesa Mill is safe and in compliance with regulatory standards and that opponents’ claims are unfounded.
“We have operated over 30 years without any environmental exceedance,” Hochstein said. “The data we have refutes their allegations. It is frustrating because people come out with opinions, but when you try to prove them, the information is usually pretty hard to find. “We take our safety obligations to our employees and all stakeholders in the area very seriously.”
However, a study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and published this year states that radioactive dust apparently carried by wind from ore-storage facilities, company ponds and transport trucks at the White Mesa mill is contaminating at least one local spring, three nearby drainages and area vegetation.
In its sampling of multiple sites, the USGS concludes that while most areas tested show uranium in the naturally-occurring range, uranium concentrations at Entrance Spring and other locations near the mill tested beyond the natural background levels.
According to the USGS report, “The uranium-234 to uranium-238 activity ratios measured in water samples collected at Entrance Spring . . . . indicate potential mixing of uranium ore with groundwater at the spring through eolian (wind carried) transport of small particles from ore-storage pads and uncovered ore trucks, with subsequent deposition in the Entrance Spring drainage, followed by dissolution in the unconfined groundwater.”
The study also reports that water samples from Entrance Spring contain elevated concentrations of selenium and vanadium, which like uranium is considered toxic to humans and animals.
Sediment samples from three ephemeral drainages, and plant tissues taken from land east of the plant, downwind of the predominant wind direction, also “contained uranium concentrations exceeding background values . . . indicating offsite transport,” according to the USGS report.
John Hultquist, radioactive-materials manager for the Utah Division of Radiation Control, told the Free Press the USGS report has caught their attention and is being reviewed.
“I think the USGS report will help us identify problem areas and move the licensee to get them cleaned up, to see where materials are coming from and figure out a way to get them back on site,” he said, adding that ore spilled on the entrance road has been cleaned up and transport trucks are required to be covered.
But there is disagreement over whether the source of hazardous materials is current operations, or so-called “legacy” operations from the 1960s and ’70s, when there were fewer regulations.
“Ore is only regulated once it enters the site, so it gets to the point of who is really responsible for ore from 50 years ago, before it was regulated by the Atomic Energy Act,” Hultquist said. “At this point we’re not sure anything is leaving the site, but you’ll get different opinions from different people on that.”
Hochstein said the USGS findings of contamination off-site are “not significant; they are just slightly higher than background levels, but no risk to human health.” He said nitrate contaminants and chloroform levels in the area are from mining activity from before the plant was built and migrate from another source than the mill.
The DRC points to White Mesa’s semi-annual effluent-monitoring reports that show the company is in compliance.
“I think they do a good job in keeping effluents from being released from the site,” Hultquist said. “The reports show they are usually at less than 10 percent of concentration limits set by federal rules, but there is always room for improvement.”
Blowing in the wind
In its comments, the tribe claims leak-detection systems on the waste-disposal cells need upgrading and are causing false readings. The situation leads to inaccurate results on hazardous-material discharges, according to an expert cited in the comments.
“The lack of a reliable monitoring system (Denison’s own study . . . predicts nominally 250 years for a leak to be detected by the monitoring wells) compounds the problem by giving false ‘negative’ results,” writes Mark E. Smith, president of RDD International Corp., a mining consulting firm.
As a condition for the new permit, the tribe wants ore-storage sites to be covered to prevent radioactive dust and heavy metals from blowing away and washing down drainages. The tribe claims a lack of regulatory oversight by the Utah Department of Air Quality and DRC in mitigating uranium-ore dust from storage pads, despite evidence by USGS of the threat to health and safety.
But DRC officials disagree. “At this point, covering the ore pads is not in the license, and part of that is that their effluent-release values from monitoring stations don’t show they are exceeding limits,” Hultquist said.
Last February, the DAQ dismissed the tribe’s concerns about the fugitive dust, saying DAQ lacked jurisdiction.
“In short the Final Air Approval Order appears to treat the White Mesa Mill fugitive dust as if it does not contain radioactive material,” states the tribe in its comments.
“The DRC’s apparent lack of knowledge of airborne vectors of contamination also leads the Tribe to the conclusion that there is currently a regulatory gap in the Department of Environmental Quality addressing air pollution at the White Mesa Mill facility.”
In response, Hultquist said the mill is “doing a good job watering down ore pads and avoiding wind-blown contaminants.”
Hochstein said ore-storage piles are much shorter in height now and the plant has a “very aggressive dust-control program. During windy days, everywhere is full of dust except near the mill because we are constantly watering everything down.”
‘A thin PVC liner’
The mill accepts uranium ore from mines on the Colorado Plateau, Uravan Belt and Arizona Strip. It also recently upgraded its system to accept “alternate feed” material. The company recycles this waste material from radioactive clean-up sites and squeezes out residual uranium.
“Otherwise it would have to be disposed of as waste,” Hochstein said. “The alternate feed is very sustainable because we are extracting uranium that you don’t have to mine; it is more efficient use of uranium that is already out of the ground.”
But it is the waste material left over by the acid-leach process that has tribal officials concerned. Uranium ore contains 1 percent actual uranium, and the excess material and lab wastes, containing concentrations of heavy metals toxic to the environment, are stored in several lined ponds called containment cells on the property.
According to tribal comments, those ponds’ liners are insufficient and outdated and have already been breached, contaminating monitoring wells and groundwater nearby.
Referring to Denison’s own studies, the tribe notes that in 2010, “DUSA [Denison] identified excessive levels of chloride, fluoride, uranium, cobalt, cadmium, molybdenum, nickel and manganese . . . in Monitoring Well 22. This contamination problem greatly concerns the Tribe, as Monitoring Well 22 is located south of the facility” near the White Mesa community.
RRD International Corp., a mining research group, concluded in a December 2011 report that the 30-mill-thick PVC liners at White Mesa are outdated and inadequate to prevent leakage from the waste-containment cells.
The report, part of the tribal record, states that the PVC liners are substantially weakened by acidic wastes associated with uranium milling and are inferior material compared to the industry standard.
“PVC geomembranes have limited tolerance of acidic (low pH) wastes . . losing 94% of the seam strength and 75% flexibility in as little as 2 months and are generally not recommended for such containments,” the report states. “Acids, solvents and other chemicals extract plasticizers, causing the geomembrane to become brittle, losing critical flexibility and therefore tolerance for settlement, movement of the wastes, planar and normal shear forces.
“Importantly, there is no collaborating data to support a thin PVC liner in an acidic environment for over 30 years. The mining industry has broadly avoided thin PVC geomembranes for acid tailings containment. Experience at White Mesa suggests that these liners have exceeded their useful life.”
The report adds that other mining-processing facilities have either abandoned or rebuilt containment ponds with PVC liners installed in the 1970s and ’80s.
‘Let it operate’
But Denison believes the liners are adequate, according to Hochstein, who points out the containment cells have not been out of compliance with Utah regulators. “We are always being inspected and are constantly monitoring everything. And it is all analyzed by an outside independent lab who then sends it to the state,” he said.
The tribe is pushing Utah regulators to impose a corrective action plan on the older containment cells as a condition of the renewed radioactive-materials license. The tribe wants two cells de-watered, capped and closed permanently, and another cleaned and fitted with a modern double-liner system of stronger material.
In its comments the tribe points to “strong evidence that the liners in Tailing Cells 1, 2 and 3 have passed their useful life . . . are currently leaking and that there is a risk of catastrophic liner failure in each of these cells.”
It notes that Denison chose a much more robust system (double 60-mil HDPE) for new tailing cells at White Mesa.
But regulators believe adjusting operating procedures helps prevent leakage from the containment cells. “When we lowered the water levels in the cells [to reduce pressure on the liners], it does not leak, so we feel OK to let it operate,” Hultquist said.
He added that the renewal permit is contingent on White Mesa submitting an updated reclamation plan that calls for vegetative caps on closed containment cells, similar to the mill site in Monticello, which was turned into a city park. No additional waste-disposal cells can be constructed until the new reclamation plan is approved, Hultquist said.
In addition to improved facilities and dust management, the tribe is also demanding improved leak-detection systems, stricter timelines for corrective actions with penalties for delays, improved storm-drainage design and monitoring, and a more environmentally secure final reclamation plan.
Cost of clean-up
As uranium mills age or close down, they go through a reclamation process that caps containment cells, cleans up wastes and secures tailing piles. The U.S. Department of Energy typically takes over management once the site has been reclaimed, which can take 10 years. To help pay for reclamation, companies put up a bond, but the tribe says that Denison’s proposed $18 million surety, increased from $16 million, is still too low.
In a benchmark analysis of similar mine reclamations, RDD concluded that a bond of $51 million would be more appropriate considering the large volume of tailings. The tribe’s expert reviewed closure costs for more than 110 mining areas worldwide, more than half of them uranium-tailing sites. RDD noted that comparable site closures include the cleanup of the uranium mill in Monticello, Utah, which cost $520 million, and Smelter Mountain in Durango, which cost $130 million. The average estimated cost for closure of a U.S. uranium mill is $107 million, considered an approximate cost for reclamation of the White Mesa Mill.
RDD estimated that total U.S. mining-closure liability is as much as $12 billion more than the bonded total.
In its comments, the tribe states that low reclamation bonds increase the chance that clean-up costs will be borne by the DOE and taxpayers, “and will allow DUSA to operate the White Mesa Mill facility in a manner that poses an increased threat to both the short-term and the longterm health and safety of Ute Mountain Ute Tribal members.”
DRC’s Hultquist insists the bond will not be lower than $18 million and may be higher.
A final decision on the radioactive-materials license renewal is expected this month.
In April, Energy Fuels announced a pending agreement to buy out Denison Mines Corp’s mining assets, including the White Mesa Mill, for $107 million. Energy Fuels, also Torontobased, is planning to build the Piñon Ridge uranium mill in Paradox Valley, Colo., but the project is being held up by a lawsuit by Sheep Mountain Alliance, a Telluride environmental group. (Free Press, Jan. 2012)
For more information see www.uraniumwatch.org/ whitemesamill and the Utah Division of Radiation Control website at www.radationcontrol.utah.gov.