Nuclear legacy clouds White Mesa’s future

“We thought it was over, but it’s just like it was. Will there ever be an end to the Indian Wars?”

— Bruce Cockburn, songwriter, human-rights activist

In the ramshackle community of White Mesa, Utah, a rusty swing-set ominously clatters in winds that carry dust from radioactive tailings piles looming in the background.
American Indian children play nearby in the dirt; their parents walk pets through swirling dust devils; and herds of commercial cattle roam the sparse fields downwind of the White Mesa mill, one of two uranium-processing plants licensed to operate in the U.S.

Sounds sensational, but for 160 members of this obscure offshoot of the Ute Mountain Ute reservation, the toxic health danger lurking a few miles upwind is a very real concern.

Although the well water falls within national environmental standards, residents here don’t drink it because of the foul taste and trace amounts of background uranium. Collecting reeds in nearby Allen Canyon for use in traditional baskets has become a worrisome activity because of its proximity to the mill. And there are rumors of deer with large tumors along their necks being spotted by local hunters.

But when a private, government-sanctioned uranium mill is placed upon ancestral burial grounds, the situation becomes sacrilegious, some tribal members say.

“Our people are buried there, and those are our traditional hunting grounds, but now it is closed off, ruined,” said Larry Begay, a lifelong resident. “When they came in 1978, our council members did not speak English; they approved it for the few jobs but did not realize the dangers it brought.”

When operating full-bore, the plant employs 90 people, some of whom are Utes. “Some are for it, but it is a trade-off,” said one former employee who wished to remain anonymous, fearing reprisals. “It is dangerous stuff and I wondered if some of the less-educated workers realized how toxic it is. I would not work there again.”

A byproduct of the Cold War and the Atomic Age, the White Mesa mill, owned by International Uranium Corporation, collects, stores and processes tailings piles to extract any residual uranium and vanadium. The toxic tailings are trucked to this high desert mesa from cleaned-up Superfund sites in New York, New Jersey, California, Illinois and Canada, and also arrive overseas from former uranium mines in the African Congo. The other operating U.S. uranium mill is in Canon City, Colo.

Once extracted, depending on the market, the uranium is shipped away to be used as fuel in nuclear power plants — civilian and military – and for more common uses such as X-ray machines in dental offices and MRI’s in hospitals. Possible future shipments to the White Mesa mill from the Department of Energy include enriched uranium for weapons, which include plutonium.

What heavy minerals remain after milling are stored in plastic-lined ponds on-site. Some of the material processed and stored there was part of the Manhattan Project, the Nevada test site where nuclear bombs were created to be dropped by the U.S. on civilians in Nagasaki and Hiroshima ending WWII.

But now a Department of Energy proposal to ship more waste to the White Mesa mill from the massive Atlas tailings site near Moab has the Ute Mountain tribe taking action.

From January 2004.