Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
We are off the air in Vernal. While we work to resume service, listen here or on the UPR app.

The Ute Mountain Utes Cite Continuing Violations at the White Mesa Uranium Mill

Aerial view of White Mesa Uranium Mill

In a few weeks, Utah’s Federal District Court will begin deliberations on the White Mesa uranium mill, and whether it threatens the health of the local Ute Mountain Ute community. 

The lawsuit was filed by the Grand Canyon Trust on behalf of the Utes who live at White Mesa, south of Blanding.

“For violating the Clean Air Act in a couple of different ways. Specifically for emitting more radon, an invisible, odorless cancer-causing gas, than is allowed.”

That’s Anne Mariah Tapp, a director at the Grand Canyon Trust in Flagstaff.

“The state of Utah has a lot of facilities that it regulates, and the White Mesa mill has not risen to the top of the list.”

It’s also not at the top of the EPA’s list. But the defendant is Energy Fuels, the mill’s owner and operator. At issue is whether substandard toxic waste ponds are threatening local aquifers and air quality. A decision isn’t expected before the end of the year. A few weeks ago, a mini-documentary, produced by Tapp, made its debut on the internet. It’s called “Half Life,” and it prominently features Colin Larrick, the water quality specialist for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. He cites growing evidence that leaking containment ponds are creating a toxic plume.

“Cell one has had documented leaks in the recent history, and they’ve had to replace a significant amount of the liner.  It was obvious that the liner was in very poor condition. There were many cracks, holes, sections of missing liner. Any liquid migration through the liners would introduce those fluids to the aquifer.”

What we’re seeing in the groundwater is that it’s becoming very acidic. Along with that we’re seeing a huge spike in a lot of the heavy metals which are in the tailings facility.”

“Half Life” also features Travis Stills, an attorney involved with the lawsuit.

“There’s a huge financial incentive to never have to clean up.  Where the White Mesa uranium mill has become a player is as a low-cost radioactive waste disposal site. So Canada and New Jersey, all kinds of government radioactive waste sites are looking for a place for their waste to go. And that’s the business that the White Mesa uranium mill is really pushing now.”

Historically, in Moab and in Monticello, federal taxpayers have had to foot the bill for cleaning up the uranium mess in Southeast Utah. Tapp says White Mesa is the unusual case where the owner/operator has not fled amid bankruptcy.

“This is a sort of rare time in terms of uranium mills where the mill is operating and citizens have the opportunity to be engaged in the regulatory process. Usually what we have is sort of abandoned or inadequately reclaimed facilities and no one to blame or no one to hold accountable.”

We were unable to reach anyone from Energy Fuels for comment on this story.  Later this month a delegation of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe will host a showing of “Half Life” in Moab. 

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."