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How A Tiny Utah Town Got Thrown Into The 'Real' Russia Scandal

Judy Fahys/KUER
The Ticaboo, Utah, resort at sunset, Dec. 5. The hotel, cafe and convenience store were closed, and only a few lights were on in the village just up the road. It's usually quiet in winter in this summer resort spot near Lake Powell.

Let’s start with President Donald Trump.

“Uranium is a big subject,” he said in the Oval Office a couple of months ago. “If the mainstream media would cover the uranium scandal, and that Russia has 20 percent of our uranium…”

(Quick fact check: It’s around 2 percentof U.S. uranium production.)

“I think that’s your Russia story. That’s your real Russia story. Not the story where they talk about collusion and there was none. It was a hoax. Your real Russia story is uranium. It’s so sad.”

He’s talking about Uranium One - the Canadian mining company that was here in Utah back when the scandal was unfolding in 2010.

Republicans have brought it up a lot lately, especially after Trump aides were indicted by in Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s Russia probe this fall.

Utah congressman Chris Stewart sits on one of three congressional committees investigating how Uranium One became the subsidiary of a subsidiary of the Russian nuclear agency. 

“Yeah, I’m going to have to be real careful how I answer that,” said Stewart, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “But I will say this: There are some things about not just the Uranium One deal but other decisions that were made at the time that were very troubling to me

I think there's going to have to be a real in-depth look into that. And we've got to find answers to questions that make no sense at all. - Rep. Chris Stewart

“I think there’s going to have to be a real in-depth look into that. And we’ve got to find answers to questions that make no sense at all.”

The reason Republicans call it a scandal is kind of complicated. But here’s a short version:

Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State back then. Her husband, the former president, accepted a big speaking fee from a Russian company and the Clinton Foundation accepted donations from people linked to Uranium One. Then, we all know, Hillary Clinton became Trump’s Democratic opponent in the election.

In 2010, her State Department was one of nine agencies that allowed the Russian subsidiary, ARMZ, to buy a controlling share of Uranium One.

And that’s why the GOP blames her for giving U.S. nuclear material to Russia.

“It could be that a special counsel is the only thing that could guarantee that we understand the answers to these questions,” said Stewart. “But I’m not calling for that at this point. I’m just saying that we might get to that point.”

It actually makes sense to look for answers in Utah.

There’s uranium here.

Also, Utah used to have Uranium One properties, like a processing plant at Shootering Canyon in Garfield County and some idle mines. Even a lease on the town of Ticaboo.

Credit Google Earth
The Shootering Canyon uranium mill used to be owned by Uranium One. It's about five miles from the company town of Ticaboo.

In fact, a Utah state official reviewed the Uranium One deal. Rusty Lundberg was a Republican appointee who was leading the state’s Division of Radiation Control back at the time.

“Ours was an interaction directly with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” he said.

Lundberg described the review as routine. Questions were perfunctory, about changes in personnel or operations. And that was it. The state didn’t even consider the Russian ties. The rules didn’t require it.

“The officials that we were working with were remaining the same,” he added. “We were simply making sure, verifying that information, then concurring with what was happening at the federal level what those changes.”

Lundberg signed off on the sale – twice. Once when the Russian company bought 51 percent of Uranium One, and three years later with the sale of the remaining shares.

Another reason his review was so low-key is that nothing was happening at the Shootering Canyon plant and hadn’t for decades. The plant processed uranium for just 76 days in just after it opened in the early 1980s. It’s been idle - on “standby” - ever since.

Lundberg said he’s never heard from the State Department about Uranium One. Or the Clinton Foundation. Or political operatives from Washington or Utah. And his story checked out with the state’s files on Uranium One.

So, all that was left to investigate was the village of Ticaboo, Utah, a uranium company town.

There was not a lot to see. A dusty road loops through the mobile homes. It’s typical southern Utah desert, and it feels about as far away as you can get from a Washington scandal.

Just after the sunset, the liveliest thing around was two rabbits running across the street. It seemed really quiet for a place that’s at the center of this national, maybe international controversy.

The Russians basically controlled Ticaboo as part of the Uranium One deal. Then developers took over five years ago with plans to make it a Lake Powell resort town.

But not much has changed. Around 25 people live here in the winter.

“Yeah. I didn’t even know this was going on. So that’s kind of interesting,” says Ileen Hapney, who was tending the Offshore Marina Trading Post up the road.

Besides her, it was empty. She was crocheting a scarf for her daughter behind the counter.

Republicans have ordered investigations...interesting. That doesn't happen very often. Must not be about them. You know how that is. - Ileen Hapney, resident of Ticaboo

“Republicans have ordered investigations – interesting,” she said. “That doesn’t happen very often. Must not be about them. You know how that is.”

Hapney said she hadn’t seen any political intrigue all summer - or Russians or anything that smacks of scandal.

“Did you run into Hillary Clinton or Bill Clinton or anyone like that?”

“No,” she said. “I ran into some of the Romney family, which is to be expected in Utah. That’s about it. I don’t think I met anyone else of any real consequence.”

Now that winter has set in, Hapney’s out of a job until spring. Ticaboo businesses are shuttered for the season.

But, in Washington, talk about the Uranium One deal is actually heating up. A Senate committee expanded its Uranium One investigation this week. And a special prosecutor could be appointed any day.

And, if they wind up coming to Ticaboo looking for more dirt, they’re sure to find a lot of desert sand.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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