The White Mesa Uranium mill is the only remaining operating uranium mill in the USA, operated by Canadian-owned Energy Fuels Incorporated, with other mills in the U.S ceasing their operations in the last half-century .
The mill is located in southern Utah, where the mill first started operation in 1980 to process uranium ore into yellowcake, which is used for nuclear power plants and nuclear weaponry. The mill uses uranium-bearing wastes from sites all over the U.S and Canada, and there are plans for the mill to start accepting waste from Estonia and Japan [5,6]. .
The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe have reservation lands 5 kms south of the mill, located in the community of White Mesa [5,6]. During the construction of the mill in the late 1970s, many of the nearby Ute Mountain Ute Tribe's archaeological and burial grounds were demolished as a result, along with their traditional hunting grounds.
Additional concerns raised by the Tribe and local environmental groups over the years have been in relation to potential groundwater contamination from the mill, as well as toxic air pollution which affects the community of White Mesa [6,7].
The uranium mill site contains five tailings cells, which contain toxic and radioactive waste slurry resulting from the uranium milling process, and spans over 290 acres .
There are two groundwater aquifers that are extremely important to the Tribe, in which three of the tailing cells are built into with only a thin sheet of PVC lining separating it from the aquifer. The three tailing cells were built in the 1980s, which didn't have the same regulatory requirements as current times. The other two aquifers were built in line with "modern standards" and therefore have leak detection and more layers of lining to prevent contamination .
A water quality specialist employed since at least 2011 by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is involved in regular testing of surface and groundwaters which serve as the water supply for the Tribe . The specialist is concerned that there could be potential contamination from the three tailings cells which were built in the 80s, as they have already experienced some leakage, where portions of the liner had to be replaced .
This shows that the remaining liner is in very poor condition and is susceptible to further leakage. The specialist has been monitoring a drinking well closest to the White Mesa community and has found that the water in the well is becoming more acidic in nature .
During the mill's lifetime, thus, there have been numerous reports of accidents and problems associated with it. Some of the problems reported over the years include exceedingly high radon gas emissions from the mill, leakages and mild contamination outside of the mill.
Mobilisations from the local Traditional Tribes and environmental groups began in the late 90s and early 2000s with street protests being a regular occurrence to the present day. Annual town hall events are organised where Indigenous community members voice their concerns against the mill's operation and express fears that the mill is becoming a radioactive waste dump. The community are involved in an annual spiritual walk, which is organised by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and environmental groups, where they continue to fight against the mills operation . In 2014, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe submitted a petition against the processing of waste from the Midnite Mine in Washington, and continue to protest about new waste arriving to the mill from other sources outside of Utah .
Further, one of the most notable accidents involving Cameco Incorporated, where in 2016, waste sludge being transported via U.S highway 101 from the Smith Ranch in-situ uranium mine in Wyoming to the mill was reportedly leaking en-route .
This resulted in the Nuclear Safety Commission conducting an inspection where they found nine violations regarding failures to assess and adequately report the waste shipments and their contents, failure to perform adequate assessments of the packaging of waste and failure to secure the shipping containments appropriately . Cameco Inc. were not fined for the leakage by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, because the company had a sufficient corrective action plan in place . The Grand Canyon Trust, a local environmental group, expressed their disappointment at the lack of fine and also expressed concerns for the local traditional tribe who could suffer the consequences of these leakages, since they live so close in proximity to the mill and the location of the leakage . Cameco Inc. also transports waste from their Blind River and Port Hope refinery and conversion plants in Canada to the mill [3,4].
Also in 2014, an environmental lawsuit was brought against Energy Fuels Inc. by local environmental group Grand Canyon Trust, claiming that one of the tailings cells breached the Clean Air Act due to the radon gas levels exceeding their limits in 2012 and 2013. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe also testified in the lawsuit. Due to the lawsuit, Energy Fuels closed the tailings cell involved in the issue, leading to the case being dismissed due to the negation of Grand Canyon Trust's claims that Energy Fuels violated the Clean Air Act .