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Plans To Process Radioactive Sand In San Juan County Raise Questions About State Oversight

two giant square pools seen from above with small buildings nearby
Tim Peterson/LightHawk
The White Mesa Mill was constructed in the early 1980s and is the last conventional uranium mill operating in the country. There are multiple pools filled with radioactive material on site.

Executives from Energy Fuels Resources, which owns the White Mesa Mill in San Juan County, announced last month that they had successfully produced a concentration of rare earth metals from something called monazite sand. And this week, they announced plans to import at least 2,500 tons of the sand a year for the next three years from a plant in the state of Georgia.

Energy Fuels president Mark Chalmers told potential investors on a call Tuesday that the company plans to ramp up production in 2021.

“I think this should get people very excited,” he said. “We’re going to start seeking collaboration with auto manufacturers, renewable energy companies and others to look at rebuilding the entire U.S. rare earth supply chain.”

The metals are used in everything from iPhones to Teslas and are primarily produced in China. 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.

But the company’s announcement that it is already processing monazite sand has raised questions about the state’s permitting process.

Sarah Fields is an anti-nuclear activist in San Juan County, and she said the state erred in allowing Energy Fuels to import the source material under its current license to process uranium ore.

She claims the state of Georgia regulates the processed monazite sand under a special license because of its high concentration of uranium or thorium, which means the sands are not technically ore.

“They cannot fall under any definition of ore, because ore is not regulated under radioactive material licenses,” she said.

The Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control oversees licensing for the mill, and a spokesperson for the division said it received a letter from Energy Fuels informing the division of its plan to process the monazite sand. Energy Fuels provided the division with information about the material, and the division agreed that it qualifies as “natural ore.”

But Fields said neither the original letter nor the division’s response was uploaded to the division’s website until she asked about the source of the monazite sand.

“They hid it, and that’s what really upsets me,” she said. “I would have started looking into this way back in the summer if I had seen those letters.”

If Fields is right, Energy Fuels would likely have to seek a new permit to import the sand, which could take months and would require a public comment process.

The Utah Division of Radiation Control said it will respond to Fields’ claim by Friday.

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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