America’s last remaining uranium mill, located in Blanding, has been violating federal safety standards, a regional environmental group has charged in federal court.
The Grand Canyon Trust, which has long opposed uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, has filed its intent to sue in Utah Federal District Court. At issue is whether the White Mesa uranium mill is operating outside of the law and contaminating the area with high radiation and dust levels. Taylor McKinnon is the energy program director of the Trust.
"Agencies aren’t enforcing, and citizens need to. That’s what’s happening here. Utah isn’t doing its job, so we’re going to do that job.”
McKinnon says monitoring has established that federal standards for radon emissions have repeatedly been violated.
“We think these are pretty clear numerical violations. There’s not a lot of wiggle room. Based on monthly reports, those emissions have now exceeded the standard two years running,” he said.
The majority of material processed at the White Mesa mill is not uranium ore, but contaminated materials from superfund sites all across the US. By one estimate, each year 800,000 tons of radioactive waste is created, which now resides in five containment ponds. McKinnon says this goes against standard practices.
“Uranium mills are required to have no more than two impoundments. This facility has many more than that. These are requirements that are set forth in law and regulations for the purpose of ensuring that the facility does not emit radiological pollution, and to ensure that cleanup happens on an ongoing basis, rather than cleanup needs accumulating, and a potential big cleanup being necessitated if they close down. These are laws and regulations that were designed on the heels of the last big uranium cleanup in our region that has involved mill cleanups in Moab and Mexican Hat and Shiprock and Tuba City, the list goes on,” McKinnon said.
The company that operates the Blanding mill is Energy Fuels, the same company that won approval for, and then abandoned plans for building another uranium mill in Colorado’s Paradox Valley.
“What Energy Fuels right now is proposing to do is put the mill on standby. So there’s a paradigm here where the mill can purportedly be turned on and off over time, without ever having to be subject to full closure and reclamation,” McKinnon said.
Energy Fuels has declined to discuss the lawsuit, but issued a statement that the “issues are being addressed,” and that there have been “no violations” at the mill.
The White Mesa Mill is near the village of White Mesa, home to 300 members of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, which has opposed permits for the mill at every turn.