By Jessica Douglas
“A lot of people don’t understand what we go through here in our community,” Badback said. “We want the mill to close. We want them to clean it up.”
Badback sounds frustrated and fatigued; at 48, she barely remembers life without the mill. Over the past 40 years, the construction of the mill demolished archaeological and burial sites important to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and depleted the tribe’s traditional hunting grounds, destroying places where people once gathered plants for basketry and medicine. Radioactive waste has been spilled along the main highway from trucks hauling material from Wyoming to White Mesa for processing. The children can no longer play outside because of the stench and the fear of what might be causing it.
The mill sits in the heart of San Juan County, a few miles east of the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument, with Canyonlands National Park to the north and Monument Valley to the southeast. It opened in 1980 to process uranium ore from the Colorado Plateau into yellowcake, a concentrated powder used in energy production and nuclear weapons. Most uranium mines closed in the last half-century. But White Mesa not only remains open, it has become a destination for radioactive material from around the world. Now, its owners want to accept waste from the Northern European country of Estonia, nearly 5,000 miles away.
Underneath the mill lies the shallow Burro Canyon aquifer, which feeds the sacred freshwater springs the tribe relies on. A layer of sandstone and shale separates it from the deeper Navajo Sandstone aquifer, White Mesa’s primary source of drinking water. The Navajo Sandstone aquifer empties into the San Juan River, one of the Colorado River’s main tributaries. Data from Energy Fuels Resources, the Colorado-based company that owns the mill, shows that groundwater from the Burro Canyon aquifer contains multiple contaminants — and that it’s rapidly getting worse. The company blames naturally occurring contaminants or previous industries, even as the contamination keeps growing.
Now, both the tribe and conservationists fear that if Energy Fuels Resources is allowed to import Estonia’s waste, it will not only further endanger the tribe, it will encourage more radioactive byproducts to be imported, prolonging the life of the mill and its impacts on land, air, water and the community’s cultural heritage. “At which point will somebody say, ‘Enough’?” Peter Ortego, the tribe’s general council spokesperson, said to me. “The tribe has already said, ‘Enough,’ and we wish other people would join us.”
Badback no longer hunts here. Only a 4-foot-tall barbed wire fence, marked with radioactive warning signs but riven by large gaps, separates the mill from the hunting grounds. The mesa’s wildlife has easy access to the mill’s five “tailings cells” — pits that hold a poisonous soup of radioactive slurry and toxic waste, leftovers from the uranium-milling process.
Today, the tailings cells cover about 290 acres — the equivalent of 382 football fields. When the mill was first built in 1980, three cells were constructed, with only a single layer of lining to separate the toxic waste from the ground and no leak-detection systems. If it were built today, all the cells would require two layers of liners and a system to detect any leakage.
Badback told me that hunters in the community said they’d seen deer hop the fence and drink from the tailings ponds; some animals have been found with green-colored meat. Now, tribal members travel great distances to hunt and collect herbs safely.
This wasn’t always the case. For thousands of years, Badbacks’ ancestors called the Four Corners region home. Yolanda and Michael’s mother, like the generations before her, gathered willows for weaving baskets, sagebrush for tea and sumac berries on the open mesas and desert ridges. People hunted deer and elk, and grew squash, corn and beans. The sandstone landscape is dotted with archaeological sites, including kivas, pit houses, petroglyphs and burials.
Life changed dramatically for the Ute Mountain Ute and other Four Corners tribes — the Hopi, Diné, Ute and Pueblo of Zuni — when the Spanish colonized the area, and were eventually followed by Mormon settlers. Through a series of land cessions and treaties in the late 1800s, the U.S. government drastically reduced the tribe’s ancestral land claims and forced most of its members to move to a reservation in western Colorado, though a few obtained small allotments in San Juan County, Utah. Today, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is split between two locations: About 2,000 people live in Towaoc, Colorado, the tribe’s headquarters, while a smaller community of about 300 live in White Mesa.
The lands the U.S. government chose as reservation sites were often remote and rugged, regarded as undesirable by white settlers. But as Stephanie Malin, an associate professor of sociology at Colorado State University and the author of The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice, explained, many of those “undesirable” lands later turned out to be rich in coal, natural gas and, especially, uranium. Suddenly, extractive industries were interested. Uranium mills and mines were built near or on tribal lands; the Jackpile-Paguate Uranium Mine on Laguna Pueblo land, for example, was once one of the largest open-pit uranium mines in the world.
The White Mesa Mill opened in 1980 under NRC regulation. An environmental assessment done at the time estimated its lifespan at 15 years, leading the tribe and many other locals to believe it would be a relatively short-lived enterprise, and that reclamation would begin shortly after operation ceased. A few years later, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control took over regulatory oversight from the NRC.
Instead of closing after 15 years, the mill started to process “alternate feed” — uranium-laden waste from contaminated sites across the country — in the early ’90s, including from the Oklahoma Sequoyah Fuels plant near Gore, Oklahoma. The White Mesa Mill processed tens of thousands of tons of radioactive waste from other mills for small amounts of uranium and stored the resulting waste in its tailings ponds, a practice that continues today.
According to Kamran Zafar, former staff attorney for the environmental nonprofit Grand Canyon Trust, this practice exploits a regulatory framework that classifies radioactive byproducts as “alternate feed” rather than conventional uranium ore. Because radioactive byproducts are classified this way, the mill can receive and process them despite the fact that it has to store the leftover materials. More than 99.73% of the shipped material from Estonia will be stored at White Mesa.
The company wants to import 2,000 drums — 615 metric tons — of radioactive waste from Estonia, which has no licensed facilities capable of processing its waste. First, however, the company had to amend its radioactive material license. Utah’s Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control received a huge volume of public comments once people learned about it — nearly 12,000 of them opposed, compared to only around 300 in support. Still, it granted Energy Fuels Resources’ request this summer.
Energy Fuels Resources, which bought the mill in 2012, has already reported that one of its cells emitted more radon into the air than allowed in 2012 and 2013 according to court records. The EPA identifies radon as the number one cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers. In 2014, the Grand Canyon Trust sued Energy Fuels Resources in Utah District Court, alleging that the company was violating the Clean Air Act. After three years of litigation, the judge ruled in the company’s favor. Three state regulators filed declarations in support of the company.
Groundwater monitoring on the mill’s property has increased since the late ’90s, but public data collected from Energy Fuel Resources’ monitoring wells and processed by tribal scientists reveal that contamination has gradually worsened. Starting in the late ’90s, some plumes — a release or movement of contaminants in the groundwater — were detected beneath the mill. One of them was a chloroform plume, which was identified as laboratory waste left over from previous activity. However, a nitrate/chloride plume was also identified, and data has shown the groundwater is contaminated with multiple heavy metals, including uranium.
Even if the contaminants were naturally occurring and the mill was not contributing to groundwater pollution, the state should be monitoring it closely, Colin Larrick, the tribe’s water quality program manager, said. “We’ve been telling the state that if they really believe that this formation is naturally acidifying and releasing contaminants to toxic levels … that’s a big deal, and they should be studying this and alerting people,” he said. “But there’s none of that.”
In addition to amending its license, Energy Fuels Resources plans to build two more tailings cells. The Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control has yet to grant the company permission to expand, but the possibility concerns the Ute Mountain Ute. The mill is in the White Mesa archaeological district, which is home to hundreds of Ancestral Puebloan and sacred archaeological sites. Many of them are hard to distinguish owing to erosion caused by weather, cattle and farming.
When the mill was first proposed in the late ’70s, its original owners had to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act. Archaeologists had to survey the property, identify any cultural sites and suggest mitigation strategies to reduce the impacts of construction. They discovered large pit houses and kivas, storage structures, burial sites, fire pits, middens and numerous artifacts. Despite the survey, however, officials with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe say they were not consulted, and most of the sites were destroyed during construction. Photos show bulldozers destroying what appears to be a kiva. “It’s a terrible photograph, and it just brings tears to your eyes,” Ortego, spokesman for the tribe’s general council, told me.
Meanwhile, the mill continues to affect the community of White Mesa, disturbing the landscape and possibly impacting the locals’ health. Badback has witnessed it all: the smokestacks, the changing water, the mining trucks that speed by, the death of the vegetation. Over the years, she has attended public hearings and testified before county commissioners and lawmakers from Blanding to Salt Lake City, arguing that the mill needs to be shuttered and the land reclaimed. She is often one of the few to speak up in town halls full of people from the nearby town of Blanding, many of whom support the mill or have jobs there. At times, Badback’s efforts have been met with furious opposition, and she’s been accosted and harassed while grocery shopping in Blanding.
But Badback and other tribal members are determined to keep fighting, submitting public comments, writing letters to the Utah DEQ, and holding an annual protest, marching from the White Mesa community center to the gates of the White Mesa Mill. Most recently, the tribe filed petitions to review and to intervene against the amendment to Energy Fuels Resources’ radioactive waste license. One day, they hope, the mill will be gone and cleaned up, and future generations will be able to thrive in the landscape their ancestors knew thousands of years ago.
Beyond its impacts on the Ute Mountain Ute, the mill’s critics say its story illustrates the enduring legacy of environmental racism, as well as the ways that Indigenous communities have been exploited by extractive industries. According to the EPA, there are 15,000 abandoned uranium mines scattered across 14 Western states, mostly Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Wyoming. About 75% of those mines are on federal and tribal lands.
“These companies, even the government, identify poor, brown, Black communities and intentionally pollute us, knowing that they capitalize off of it. This has a direct impact on the psyche of Native peoples,” Talia Boyd (Diné), the cultural landscapes manager for Grand Canyon Trust, said. “Because these are sacred places, these are places where we go to heal, these are places where we go to gather medicine. When it’s compromised by radioactive contaminants or contamination, then we are exposed, (because) it compromises the integrity of our landscape to heal us.”
As for Badback, she has made her position clear. “I will stand my ground,” Badback told me. “I will not stop until the day that I get this mill to close and get it cleaned up.”