Environment | KSJD

A U.S. uranium mill is near this tribe. A study may reveal if it poses a health risk

The Utah mill has long concerned a tribal community next door. They hope a new health study will answer their questions. "A lot of our people mysteriously started getting sick," a tribal member says.

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The Energy Fuels uranium mill and waste cells at White Mesa, Utah.
The Energy Fuels uranium mill and waste cells at White Mesa, Utah. Bruce Gordon | Ecoflight

A Native American community neighboring the only operating uranium mill in the U.S. is hoping a new study will answer longstanding questions about whether it is affecting their health.

Members of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe living in White Mesa, Utah, say they have seen an alarming increase in health problems in recent years.

"I am aware that there have been increased levels of cancer," says Scott Clow, the tribe's environmental director. "We don't have any evidence tying that to the mill at this point, but we have our concerns."

The Environmental Protection Agency in June gave the approximately 2,000 member tribe a $75,000 grant to design a study that will be conducted with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Clow says. It will analyze tribal members' health data and environmental conditions to see if any links can be made to the Energy Fuels uranium mill. Results are expected in 2025.

"We just want to know everything we can know to help the tribe understand the situation, and what the hazards may or may not be," he says.

Energy Fuels' White Mesa facility is also a disposal site for radioactive waste, some of which has been imported from overseas.

The company has plans to expand uranium milling as concerns about climate change are increasing demand for carbon free energy, including nuclear.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is driving demand for domestically produced fuel for U.S. nuclear plants, which have sourced nearly half of their fuel from Russia and former Soviet republics. In April Energy Fuels got a key permit from the state of Arizona to reopen an old uranium mine there.

The Ute Mountain Utes and their ancestors have called the region around the mill home for thousands of years. Bears Ears National Monument, a sacred site for the area's Indigenous people, is visible from the mill's property.

Michael Badback, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribal community at White Mesa, Utah.
Michael Badback, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribal community at White Mesa, Utah. Lucas Brady Woods | KSJD

Longstanding tribal members oppose the production and storage of radioactive materials nearby

Michael Badback is a tribal member whose family has lived in the community of White Mesa, about five miles from the mill, for generations. But now they're increasingly worried they won't be able to preserve their way of life into the future.

"This is still virgin land, and we want it to remain that way," says Badback. "That's how our ancestors used to walk on this land. We want to walk on it like that and leave the legacy up to our grandchildren."

Badback and others are opposed to the production and storage of radioactive materials at the Energy Fuels site.

"We don't know the health issues that come along with this stuff," he says. "A lot of our people mysteriously started getting sick. Kids and other adults started to have asthma like they never had before."

Contaminants have been confirmed in the local groundwater. The Grand Canyon Trust, an advocacy group, says samples from the aquifer below the mill have concerning levels of acidity and chemicals like chloroform.

But definitively linking health conditions to environmental contamination is notoriously difficult. Energy Fuels says the contaminants in the aquifer are nothing to worry about.

"You will see very big fluctuations in naturally occurring elements," says company Vice President Curtis Moore. "That's what we're seeing right now."

According to Energy Fuels, the elements are not significant enough to pose a health risk. State regulators agree and have loosened rules, allowing Energy Fuels to store increasingly radioactive waste onsite, including waste imported from overseas.

"It's clearly not natural," counters the tribe's Clow. "Those are orders of magnitude higher than what we would find in there naturally."

Moore says the mill takes precautions. For example, radioactive waste is stored in specially-designed ponds called tailing cells. The cells have liners to prevent material from seeping into the ground.

Some also have leak-detection systems, but the older cells don't because they were built before the technology was standard. The Grand Canyon Trust says that means it's impossible to know if they're leaking or not.

The Ute Mountain Utes are also worried about air pollution.

The water in the tailing cells serves as a barrier that prevents radiation from escaping into the air. But in one 40-acre cell, radioactive material has been left above water for the last two years. The EPA says that's a violation of federal law.

The agency says the exposed cell could be emitting up to ten times more radiation than if it were under water, and requires that the mill's radioactive waste remain submerged at all times. In December, the agency told Energy Fuels it must fill the cell.

Moore says the company is working on it. But he also says filling the cell may take several months because there are limits on how much water at a time can be pumped from wells in the high desert area.

"At the end of the day, the Clean Air Act says that that thing should have liquid on it," Clow says.

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Transcript :

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The demand is building for carbon-free, climate-friendly energy. And because nuclear energy is increasingly in demand, America's only operating uranium mill is getting busier. But an Indigenous community nearby is worried about health impacts because regulators say the mill is violating air quality rules. From member station KSJD, Lucas Brady Woods reports.

LUCAS BRADY WOODS, BYLINE: On a dirt road cutting through the sandstone canyon country of southeast Utah, Michael Badback points out Bears Ears National Monument in the distance, a sacred site for the region's Indigenous people.

MICHAEL BADBACK: Look at the beauty in the rocks, in the formations of the hills. It's pure out here.

WOODS: Badback, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, lives nearby. Across the road, the White Mesa uranium mill produces fuel for nuclear reactors. A barbed wire fence here is fixed with signs that say, caution, radioactive materials.

BADBACK: We don't know the health issues of what comes along with this stuff. A lot of our people mysteriously started getting sick. And kids and other adults started to have asthma like they never had before.

WOODS: Definitively linking health conditions to environmental contamination is notoriously difficult. Energy Fuels resources, the company that owns and operates the mill, says there's nothing to worry about. Energy Fuels' Vice President Curtis Moore.

CURTIS MOORE: You will see very big fluctuations in naturally occurring elements. That's what we're seeing right now.

WOODS: Moore says the mill takes precautions. Radioactive waste is stored in specially designed cells that are covered with water to keep radiation from escaping into the air. But for at least two years, material in one 40-acre cell at the mill has been above water. In December, the EPA told Energy Fuels they need to cover it. Moore says the company is filling the pond. But...

MOORE: It'll take several months because we can only pull so much water out of our wells at a certain rate.

WOODS: Moore says the uncovered waste poses no danger and that filling up the pond during the ongoing drought is a waste of water. Scott Clow, environmental director for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, disagrees.

SCOTT CLOW: At the end of the day, the Clean Air Act says that that thing should have liquid on it.

WOODS: The EPA says the waste cell could be emitting up to 10 times more radiation than if it were under water. And Clow says the tribe is worried about water contamination, too. The Grand Canyon Trust, an advocacy group, says samples from the aquifer below the mill have concerning levels of acidity and contaminants like chloroform.

CLOW: It's clearly not natural. Those are orders of magnitude higher than what we would find in there naturally.

WOODS: Energy Fuels says the contamination is naturally occurring and not significant enough to impact people's health. State regulators agree and have loosened rules, allowing Energy Fuels to store increasingly radioactive waste onsite, including waste imported from overseas. Clow and members of the tribe he works for want more information.

CLOW: I am aware that there have been increased levels of cancer. We don't have any evidence tying that to the mill at this point, but we have our concerns.

WOODS: The tribe is launching a study to look for evidence. In June, the EPA gave them a grant to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on that. Results are expected in 2025. Michael Badback and other Ute Mountain Utes who live at White Mesa would be happier if the mill wasn't there at all.

BADBACK: This is still virgin land. And we want it to remain that way. That's how our ancestors used to walk on this land. And we want to walk on it like that and leave the legacy up to our grandchildren.

WOODS: But demand for fuel for U.S. nuclear power plants is growing. And Energy Fuels recently got a key permit for a uranium mine nearby in Arizona.

For NPR News, I'm Lucas Brady Woods.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOONCAKE'S "MANDARIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.