SAN JUAN COUNTY, Utah (ABC4) – What began as a mill built to break down rock and process natural uranium ore has become a dumping ground for radioactive waste from contaminated sites across the world.
The White Mesa Mill, which is just south of Blanding, has reportedly received over 700 million pounds of waste, unregulated.
Tim Peterson, the cultural landscapes director at the Grand Canyon Trust, which is an organization dedicated to safeguarding the wonders of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado Plateau as well as supporting the rights of Native peoples, says, “It’s cheaper for polluters to send their waste to the mill than to a licensed low-level radioactive waste disposal facility. If the mill wants to function like a radioactive waste disposal business, it should be regulated like one.”
The White Mesa Mill is located near the Bears Ears National Monument, and trucks headed for the mill are said to have splattered radioactive sludge along the route that the children of the nearby Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s White Mesa Reservation community take to school.
The land is linked to the ancestry of the Hopi, Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni, Ute, and many other tribes.
The mill on its own poses threats to the environment, emitting radioactive, toxic air pollutants. The toxic contaminants have been detected in the groundwater in the area as well, according to the report.
An unconventional business model, the mill collects huge amounts of money for disposal of millions of pounds of radioactive waste.
The waste is labeled “alternate feed,” just another source of uranium that the mill owner claims they’re “recycling,” however, often less than one percent of uranium is extracted from the loads of waste, and the leftover radioactive waste is simply poured into massive waste pits.
The motivation is said to have come because of a collapse in the uranium market in the 1980s, forcing the mill to find another way to make money.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission would subsequently allow the mill to charge fees to accept waste from military and industrial sites, claiming that uranium will be extracted.
So legally, the “alternate feeds,” or radioactive waste, is seen as just another of uranium.
The mill would soon be accepting radioactive waste from all over North America, from places like federal atomic testing sites, and highly contaminated industrial and defense sites.
To add insult to injury, the Bears Ears National Monument, in the area the White Mesa Mill, contains an estimated 100,000-plus cultural and archaeological sites.
The people of these lands have been fighting a battle with the mill for years, and in 1994, Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute advocates successfully prevented a plan to bring over 110,000 truckloads of contaminated material to the mill.
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the White Mesa mill’s location, the mill sits atop the deep Navajo Aquifer, the main source of drinking water for southeastern Utah, and scientists are weary that contamination from the mill might reach the aquifer.
The aquifer also feeds into area springs and the nearby San Juan River.
The chances of contamination are unknown, but the consequences would be devastating.
To give you an idea of the danger of the situation, the mill’s waste ponds range in size from 55 to 71 acres, and are lined with a single layer of plastic, meaning that if any of the plastic liners crack, the radioactive waste could leak into shallow groundwater below.
The pits themselves aren’t designed to hold the amalgamation of radioactive waste from around the world; they were designed to hold uranium mill tailings – the rock and other waste left over from milling natural uranium ore.
The problem here is obvious – but what comes next?
The state of Utah faces a choice, and the consequences for the community, the environment, and Utah’s public health will see the effects throughout generations to come.