When the White Mesa Mill was built in 1980, it was permitted to process domestic uranium ore for 15 years.
There were no plans for it to be an international radioactive waste disposal site, but that’s what environmental activists and representatives of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe argue the White Mesa Mill has become. And now the mill’s owner is requesting a permit to import radioactive waste from as far away as Eastern Europe.
Through a series of regulatory decisions over the decades, the State of Utah has allowed the White Mesa Mill to alter its business model. Now, the mill primarily processes radioactive waste from sites across North America and stores it in tailings ponds, which cover almost 300 acres of its facility in San Juan County.
The material, called alternate feeds, contains uranium, which the mill extracts before placing the remains in the tailings ponds. And this process has allowed the mill to remain solvent, as the domestic uranium industry has dried up and become unprofitable.
In the permit application under consideration by the state, the mill’s owner, Energy Fuels Resources, is requesting permission to import radioactive material from outside of North America for the first time. A rare earth metals processing facility in Estonia has run out of room to store its waste, and now wants to pay the mill to take it.
Energy Fuels Resources says that by accepting the Estonian waste, it would be putting the material to good use to produce uranium, which can be turned into nuclear energy. Paul Goranson, COO of Energy Fuels, said accepting the waste also allows them to retain employees at the mill, which employs around 60 people in San Juan County.
But environmental activists and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe disagree.
In a public hearing Wednesday, representatives of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe argued that by allowing the mill to accept the Estonian material, the state is tacitly endorsing the creation of a hazardous waste facility less than 10 miles from its reservation at White Mesa, as well as the nearby community of Blanding.
“The facility has gone from being the North American continent’s dry low-level waste disposal facility of choice ... to now being the world’s radioactive waste dump,” said Scott Clow, director of the Tribe’s environmental programs department.
During the hearing, which was requested by an environmental activist, state regulators said that because the waste material produces uranium, the mill can accept it under federal law.
But Sarah Fields of Monticello, who prompted the hearing, and others on the call argued that the alternate feeds are primarily waste, since the mill gets paid to take them. They also argued the mill was never intended to become a radioactive disposal facility.
“The plan was to build a mill to process natural uranium ore for 15 years, and then to close the mill and clean it up,” said Aaron Paul, an attorney with the environmental advocacy group Grand Canyon Trust.
“If you lived in White Mesa or Blanding ... in 1979, you would have thought that by 1994 the trucks going to and from the mill would be gone, that the mill wouldn’t be running, that it wouldn’t be putting out smoke,” he said. “Yet here we are in 2020 … and it’s continuing to operate.”
Energy Fuels Resources is also asking the state to double its capacity to accept material from domestic “in situ” uranium mining sites, which operate by injecting a bicarbonate liquid into uranium-containing rock to leach the substance out.
This waste is primarily equipment, such as pipes and storage containers, used at sites in Wyoming and Texas, according to Goranson of Energy Fuels Resources.
He said the mill needs to increase its limit from 5,000 to 10,000 cubic yards per site per year to accept more material, because it is one of only two sites in the country that can accept the waste.
“When [the Nuclear Regulatory Commission] first enacted the law there were 26 [sites that accepted waste],” Goranson said. “If you limit us to 5,000 yards per site, it’s not enough room for what’s needed.”
Energy Fuels Resources is also asking the state to relax the groundwater standards for uranium around Cell 3, a tailings pond where the in situ waste could go.
The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe opposes both of these requests, according to Clow. The Tribe believes that Cell 3 is leaking, based on readings from monitoring wells around the pond, which was built in the 1980s and does not comply with modern requirements for tailings ponds.
“The state is proposing to allow the unlimited disposal of [in situ leaching] waste in a 40-year-old cell, while relaxing the definition of [a] well being polluted,” Clow said during the hearing.
The state Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control is accepting public comment on these requests until June 5. The division then will review the comments and decide whether to issue permits.
Correction 9:30 a.m. MDT 5/22/20: this article has been updated to reflect that Clow's concern is about the state relaxing the definition of a well being polluted.