Utah tribe wants polluting uranium mill closed

by Shannon Kelleher

This Saturday the Ute Mountain Ute tribe in southeastern Utah is planning a rally to protest the last functioning uranium mill in the United States. The White Mesa Mill, which sits on sacred ancestral tribal lands, has been polluting the environment and jeopardizing the health of local communities for decades.

“We keep fighting and fighting to get it to either shut down or get it to move,” said Michael Badback, a tribal member and longtime White Mesa resident.

More than 700 million pounds of radioactive waste from across the US are buried in the White Mesa Uranium Mill’s waste pits, according to a report by Grand Canyon Trust. And the site may soon become a dumping ground for radioactive materials from around the world, with waste streams from Canada, Japan, and Europe approved for shipment to the mill.

While the mill was designed to accept crushed uranium ore from mines, it can also accept waste streams as long as they contain uranium or thorium.

“Really what we have is a uranium mill that’s essentially functioning as a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility without being regulated like one,” said Tim Peterson, cultural landscapes director at Grand Canyon Trust. “It’s accepting this sort of stew or cocktail of materials that has all kinds of other components in it. We don’t have any other facility in the United States that has this particular mix in its waste pits, so we don’t really know how these things interact and what they might do together.”