The Denver Post article “Colorado, Utah Tribe Worries Last Uranium Mill is Contaminating Water” highlights a disconnect for our country: Americans are nearly united in wanting to build a clean-energy future, but some people oppose the production of the raw materials needed for those technologies.
Fortunately, modern facilities in the U.S. lead the world in the protection of human health and the environment. State and federal agencies are stringent and science-based in regulating these facilities.
The Biden administration’s goal of cutting emissions in half by 2030 from 2005 levels calls for greater support and investment in the domestic manufacturing of clean energy technologies. Demand is soaring for technologies like electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines and batteries, so the country should support responsible production of the critical minerals needed for these products.
The U.S. has been absent from global supply chains for many critical materials and minerals for decades. In fact, the vast majority of the advanced rare earth materials necessary to produce clean technologies come from China, controlling approximately 90% of the global market. This leaves the U.S. vulnerable and dependent upon a country that does not share America’s values on national security, environmental protection, or human rights.
The history of mining in America is complicated, just like every industry. But one cannot deny that mining is essential; I can attest that modern mining and milling is done far more responsibly than it was in the past. It is understandable that Indigenous communities are wary.
When the U.S. government-sponsored domestic uranium mining during the 1950’s and 1960’s, Native Americans were disproportionately impacted. So, I was not surprised to read that a White Mesa resident was skeptical of the Mill.
Correct facts must be communicated with residents, so they understand the Mill is not a threatening or dangerous neighbor. On the contrary, Energy Fuels should be applauded for its commitment to the hiring of Native Americans, innovation, commitment to environmental protection, and exceptional record of regulatory compliance that includes only one violation in the past 8 years for a paperwork issue.
Clearly, a few people in the White Mesa community are being manipulated by activists to cultivate distrust in the community to advance their agendas. The Grand Canyon Trust seems to be spearheading a misinformation campaign against the Mill, falsely alleging that it is contaminating groundwater and exceeding radon levels. In fact, analysis of White Mesa’s drinking water proves that all constituents are well within EPA drinking water standards, and the constituents that are slightly elevated (though still within EPA standards) are associated with pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and other agricultural activities not associated with the Mill. This effort by the Grand Canyon Trust does nothing but divide and scare those who live in the community.
It is noted that Energy Fuels did receive an unacceptability notice from the EPA in 2021. However, there is a valid reason. In 2019, the company received the EPA’s permission to draw down water in an evaporation pond to expose evaporite crystals, because radon emissions from these crystals are three to five times below the final reclamation standard. In other words, from a radon standpoint, the material in this pond would be allowed to emit today’s levels of radon forever. Publicly available data on Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality website prove that radon emissions from the Mill are far below limits.
However, after the change of administration, the EPA appeared to change course without notifying Energy Fuels. The company is refilling the evaporation pond today, even though there will be a minimal effect on radon emissions.
I have reviewed the company’s well monitoring exceedances, and I see no evidence that implies the tailings cells are leaking or contaminating groundwater. If this were true, we would see many other constituents rising simultaneously – they aren’t. Because the region is arid and in the middle of a drought, constituents in shallow groundwater can naturally fluctuate significantly.
The Mill meets the definition of domestic clean energy infrastructure. It responsibly produces uranium, vanadium and rare earth materials more advanced than any other company in the U.S., containing elements needed for EV’s, wind energy, and carbon-free energy.
I have spent 43 years of my engineering career in the mining and milling industries. We continue to evolve and learn from past practices, no different than other industries. Today, U.S. companies clearly employ practices, protections, and regulations to ensure facilities operate in a way that does not negatively impact surrounding communities or environments. Modern government regulation in the U.S. is extremely conservative, so we can address small issues before they become big problems.
Let the state of Utah and federal regulators do their jobs. With a comprehensive environmental program overseen by meticulous state and federal regulators, including more than 80 air and
groundwater monitoring locations, I see no indication or evidence that the Mill is adversely impacting
groundwater or drinking water. There is zero evidence of excess radon or other air emissions.
Scare tactics and division from activist organizations do nothing to bring people and companies together to build better communities, address legitimate concerns, and solve the world’s most daunting problems including climate change. In the U.S., innovation, technology, science, and regulation is proving that environmental protection and production of clean energy materials work in tandem.
Corby G. Anderson is a professional engineer focused on mining. He is a professor at the Colorado School of Mines, but is not speaking on behalf of the university.
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