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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

A Uranium Mill Near Blanding May Begin Processing Ore For Elements Used In iPhones And Military Weapons

Kate Groetzinger
The White Mesa Mill in San Juan County is the only operating Uranium mill in the country. It is located halfway between the Ute Mountain Ute White Mesa community and Blanding.

Engineers at a uranium mill in San Juan County have figured out how to produce a concentrate of rare earth elements from North American ore. The company that owns the mill, Energy Fuels, announced their accomplishment Tuesday, after producing the substance at their facility outside of Blanding.

“Rare earths are a big deal because they have a lot of high-tech uses,” said Energy Fuels marketing director Curtis Moore, “so the government is interested in bringing their production back to the U.S.”

Currently, the U.S. imports 80%of its rare earth metals from China. But Energy Fuels is one of a handful of companies working to change that. It announced its intention to process ore containing rare earth metals following a push from the Pentagon in April to spur domestic production.

Producing rare earth elements requires a long chain of actions, according to Moore. The raw material usually contains a mix of the metals, which must be milled into a concentrated substance and then separated out. At that point, they are processed into alloys, which are used in everything from iPhones to heat-seeking missiles.

He said Energy Fuels is perfectly positioned to process material containing the metals, since they can occur alongside uranium.

“This is really not that different in concept than what this facility has done for 40 years,” Moore said. “It’s basically recovering Uranium out of an ore.”

An official with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality said Energy Fuels alerted the state earlier this year of its plans to import Monazite sand from the state of Georgia in order to extract rare earth elements and Uranium from it.

Although the last mine in the U.S. producing rare earth metals closed in 2015, scientists recently discovered ore rich in the metals at certain locations in Georgia. But Moore would not say exactly which mine produced the Monazite sand used by Energy Fuels.

Since the mill is recovering Uranium from the ore, along with the rare earth metals, the Department said it is licensed to dispose of the final waste product in the tailing ponds at the White Mesa Mill.

That has some environmental groups concerned. The Grand Canyon Trust and HEAL Utah both said the White Mesa Mill has outlived its purpose, which was to mill domestic Uranium, and that keeping it open affects the nearby Ute Mesa Ute community of White Mesa.

“It perpetuates the other harm the mill causes,” said Aaron Paul with the Grand Canyon Trust. “When, 40 years on, it seems like a good time to get serious about reclamation.”

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe believes one of the mill’s tailings ponds is leaking, polluting a shallow aquifer beneath the community with chemicals. Energy Fuels acknowledges that toxins exist in the water below the mill, but claims some were there before the mill was constructed and the rest originate upstream.

Moore’s company has expanded its business model in recent years to process Uranium-containing material called “alternate feeds”. The mill is currently seeking permits to process waste material from a rare-earth producing facility in Estonia, as well as a construction site in Colorado.

“Really their business model is taking waste,” said Scott Williams with HEAL Utah. “Same is true with these rare earth metals.”

Moore said Energy Fuels will continue refining the rare earths concentration process over the next few months, before deciding whether to move forward with commercial production. He added the mill will remain focused on Uranium production, but processing ore for rare earth elements could be a complementary side business.

Updated: November 6, 2020 at 4:11 PM MST
Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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