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Plan To Idle White Mesa Mill Sends Shockwaves Through Uranium Country

white mesa uranium mill

America’s last active uranium mill, near Blanding in San Juan County, announced plans to shut down for at least a year, beginning August 2014. It’s going to have a devastating effect on a would-be revival of uranium mining in the Four Corners.

The White Mesa Mill directly employs about 200 people in Blanding. Many more people, including suppliers and miners all across the region, depend on the mill.

Energy Fuels Resources, the owner of the mill, announced it will also be idling its controversial uranium mines near the Grand Canyon. In Blanding, the mill has been regarded as the county’s “economic juggernaut” by the local paper, and “the crown jewel of private enterprise” by Bruce Adams, chair of the San Juan County Commissioners.

This week, upon hearing plans to idle the mill, Commissioner Adams said he was devastated.

"It is the only operating uranium mine (mill) in the United States right now. It has a big impact on our county budget, as well as the individual income of those people that work at the mill or are associated with uranium mining to bring product to the mill," Adams said. There are 200 jobs associated with the mill, which makes that probably the largest employer in San Juan County. I think there’s an associated number that are involved in the mining, but there are probably people from other counties such as down around Kanab or Garfield County or Kane County, maybe even some people down in Arizona that worked on the area along the Grand Canyon."

In 2012, Energy Fuels paid almost a million dollars in property taxes to San Juan County.

"If we lost that million dollars, we’d have maybe not quite the impact that Tooele County is feeling right now. But it would be significant enough that we would have to look at the services that we provide, from the county to the public," Adams said.

This will not be the first time the White Mesa Mill has been idled for a long period, and over the years employment numbers have varied dramatically. Commissioner Adams said the county knows what’s coming.

"It’s happened before, and it has a pretty devastating effect on these small businesses around the county that work with the mill," Adams said. "Real estate values, everything is affected by a closure of a large employer like that. And those have a multiplier effect when they happen. You know, it’s not just those 200 people affected. That multiplier goes out to everybody. It affects your school classroom sizes, and then the district then has to look at their budget and what kind of cuts they have to make, and it’s compounded."

The White Mesa Mill has been controversial from the beginning. It was built in 1980 near the Ute village of White Mesa, displacing numerous Anasazi cultural sites. The Ute Mountain Tribe has previously challenged the mill’s licensing, saying Utah environmental standards are inadequate. The Grand Canyon Trust says there have been “systemic” problems, including violation of radon standards and contamination of local springs and ground water.

Moab activist Ken Sleight has called the mill a “full-scale nuclear waste dump.” That’s because much of the mill’s profit comes, not from processing uranium ore, but from “recycling” nuclear wastes, including tailings and contaminated soils, which are trucked in from several states, and even other countries. What’s left over is a toxic and radioactive stew of industrial chemicals that are stored in open pits with 30-year old plastic liners.

Ultimately it may have been the Fukushima disaster that was the death blow to an already struggling industry. The frenzy to file thousands of new mining claims in the Four Corners ended about five years ago, and since then the price of uranium has plummeted. Energy Fuels says, to meet its contracts, it can buy yellowcake on the spot market for less than the cost of production.

Originally from Wyoming, Jon Kovash has practiced journalism throughout the intermountain west. He was editor of the student paper at Denver’s Metropolitan College and an early editor at the Aspen Daily News. He served as KOTO/Telluride’s news director for fifteen years, during which time he developed and produced Thin Air, an award-winning regional radio news magazine that ran on 20 community stations in the Four Corners states. In Utah his reports have been featured on KUER/SLC and KZMU/Moab. Kovash is a senior correspondent for Mountain Gazette and plays alto sax in “Moab’s largest garage band."