A conservation group is suing over radioactive air emissions at the White Mesa Uranium Mill near Blanding, Utah.
The Grand Canyon Trust, with offices in Flagstaff and Moab, filed its complaint April 2 in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City. The group says the mill exceeded Clean Air Act limits for radon releases in 2012 and 2013, and maintains more than the allowed number of open pits for uranium-mining byproducts called tailings.
The White Mesa Mill was acquired in 2012 by Energy Fuels, Inc., an Ontario, Canada-based corporation with an operations center in Lakewood, Colo., near Denver. That purchase was part of a bigger regional buyout of Denison Mines; Energy Fuels now operates several mines in the Four Corners area along with the mill.
White Mesa is the only conventional uranium mill operating today in the country. It processes ore and radioactive waste from uranium mines in the Grand Canyon region and beyond, as well as Superfund sites across the country.
“The trust’s position is if the uranium mill is going to operate, it has to be in a way that complies with public health and safety,” said Anne Mariah Tapp, an attorney with Grand Canyon Trust.
Radon-222, the toxin of concern in the lawsuit, breaks down into heavy-metal forms that are readily inhaled. Studies have consistently linked occupational exposure to radon-222 with lung cancer, although links between residential exposure and lung cancer are less certain.
The Blanding area is not especially populous; about 3,600 people live in the nearby communities of Blanding, Bluff and White Mesa. Out of these, the closest and most at-risk community – the White Mesa community of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe – has voiced the strongest concerns about both air and water pollution from the mill. The tribe is not a party to the lawsuit, and declined to comment on it, but has spoken out for years about the open pits where the mill stores mining waste.
“The Tribe asserts that DRC [Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Radiation Control] is failing in its duty to protect the public and UMU Tribal.
Members from air contamination and surface contamination caused by airborne deposition of radioactive material,” the tribe wrote in Dec. 16, 2011 comments on a proposed license renewal.
Asked to comment on the suit, Division of Radiation Control Director Rusty Lundberg acknowledged 2012 radon emissions from one of the tailings pits that exceeded EPA limits.
“In working with our air-quality agency to resolve this, it was determined to add additional soil cover to the disposal cell and to increase the emissions monitoring from being reported annually to monthly, as required by regulation,” he wrote in an email. “Since last fall, the reported monthly radon emissions have been below the standard.” Lundberg said no further enforcement actions are in the works for the mill.
The Grand Canyon Trust suit alleges that other violations are ongoing, including more than the two open tailings pits allowed by law.
“We’re concerned that the tailings-remediation backlog poses pollution and financial risks to the public, especially if the mill were to close,” Tapp said in a press release.
Curtis Moore, director of Investor and Public Relations for Energy Fuels, said the lawsuit is basically unfounded.
“Generally, all the issues that they raise are well-known by the regulators and they’re either being addressed or they’re without merit. We’ve never been issued a violation,” he said. “It’s just more of their ongoing efforts to stop nuclear energy and uranium-mining in the United States.”
Citing weak market conditions, Energy Fuels announced in December that it planned to halt processing at the mill later this year and potentially restart in 2015. The mill will continue to process ore intermittently for the foreseeable future; during standby times, the site will continue to receive waste, and any open tailings pits will continue to emit pollutants.
As for its other sites in the region, Energy Fuels has agreed to temporarily cease efforts to open its controversial Canyon Mine near Tusayan, Ariz. Moore said efforts to begin mining at that site will restart at the end of this year or when a separate lawsuit is resolved, whichever comes first.
That suit, filed by the Havasupai Tribe, Sierra Club, Grand Canyon Trust and Center for Biological Diversity in March of 2013, blasts a Forest Service decision to allow mining to begin at the Canyon Mine based on a permit – and environmental review – that happened in 1986. The plaintiffs say new studies need to be done to assess potential damage to springs, which provide drinking water to the Havasupai people as well as flora and fauna in the Grand Canyon.
Late last year, Energy Fuels had also said it would close its Pinenut Mine, just north of Grand Canyon. However, on April 23, the company announced that it had averted the shutdown at the Pinenut Mine due to improved mining conditions; miners encountered higher-quality uranium than they expected. Energy Fuels plans to mine that deposit to depletion, likely by early 2015.