Native American Civilization Bites the Nuclear Dust at White Mesa, Utah
The settlement of White Mesa, Utah is located twelve miles south of Blanding, Utah on U.S. Highway 191. As the Utah component of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, its 2000 census data indicated a population of 277 people. Over ninety-eight percent of the population was Native American. By the 2010 census, the population at White Mesa had fallen over twelve percent to 242 people. By then, the population had aged, with fewer children and young people living there. In 2000, over fifty percent of the population lived below the poverty line. The only retail business at White Mesa is the reservation-owned White Mesa Travel Center, which includes as gas station and convenience store.
About halfway between White Mesa and Blanding, Utah, sits the Denison Mines White Mesa Mill. First opened in 1980 by Energy Fuels Corporation, White Mesa Mill went bankrupt in 1997. At that time, International Uranium (USA) Corp. purchased the mill. Later, Denison Mines purchased the mill and now operates it as a wholly owned subsidiary. The White Mesa Mill has the distinction of being the only conventional uranium ore-processing mill in the United States. Unobtrusive, when viewed from the highway, the facility covers 3840 acres of land. In addition to the mill itself are huge earthworks and retention ponds. In 2002, The Canyon Country Zephyr named the White Mesa Mill its “#1 Secret Place of Canyon Country”.
Currently, the mill accepts radioactive and toxic wastes from around the nation, and then stores them onsite. When the gathered stockpiles of nuclear tailings and residues are sufficient, the mill goes into operation and processes them. With the addition of newly mined ores, the mill has seen continuous operation since 2005. Since there is no rail access to the mill, all materials arrive at the site by truck. When you are sitting at an open-air café in Moab, Utah watching huge multi-axel tractor-trailer rigs roll through town, they may be loaded with nuclear contaminated materials destined for White Mesa. It is interesting that those huge, covered trailers display no hazardous or nuclear placards.
Although the processing plant has a separate vanadium-processing loop, the main product of the White Mesa Mill is triuranium octoxide (U3O8), which is a compound of uranium. Despite its olive green color, U3O8 is a form of yellowcake, which may contain up to eighty percent uranium oxide. Triuranium octoxide manufactured at White Mesa Mill is transported offsite for further enrichment. Its ultimate use is as fuel for nuclear power plants. With further enrichment, it could become weapons-grade material.
In May 2008, the Division of Air Quality (DAQ), within the Utah Division of Environmental Quality conducted an inspection and issued a report regarding air quality compliance at White Mesa Mill. Among other things, the DAQ inspection looked at how much ten-micron particulate matter (PM10) went up the stacks and into the atmosphere. Although permitted for up to .4 pounds of PM10 per hour, during inspection each yellowcake scrubber/dryer onsite emitted “only” .12 pounds per hour. If operated continuously for one year, those two dryer/scrubbers alone would emit over one ton of unknown, possibly radioactive particulates into the air. Other sources claim that the mill annually emits 62 tons of sulfur dioxide, 109 tons of nitrogen oxides, and 254 tons of particulates. Propane usage onsite is several million gallons per year.
Also discovered during the 2008 inspection was a non-compliant baghouse (air filtration facility) associated with lab operations at the site. After notification of non-compliance, Denison Mines estimated that the baghouse emitted one hundred ten pounds of PM10 particulates per year. Although there was no corroboration of those estimates, the Utah DAQ did not challenge company findings. Because of the supposedly small amount of released particulates, the DAQ did not fine Denison Mines for non-compliance.
After thirty years of operation, much of the mill’s original equipment is still in use, or disuse, as the case may be. For example, the 2008 DAQ inspection determined that the emergency electrical generator onsite had last operated in 1996. Despite the requirement that an emergency generator be available during power interruptions, DAQ did not fine Denison Mines for lack of compliance. Ironically, the DAQ inspection report used inoperability as a reason to not penalize the operator. In the inspection report, there is no mention of the need to fix or replace the derelict emergency generator. Under the circumstances, we can only hope that future power interruptions will not result in site contamination or release of airborne particulates.
Also missing, misplaced or misidentified during the inspection was a Bartlett-Snow rotary calciner. The DAQ report indicated, “Company contacts were not aware of where the rotary calciner and control equipment were located.” That surprised me, since a rotary calciner shown at the Bartlett-Snow website required a three-axel flatbed trailer to carry it. I checked eBay, and as of this writing, the only used rotary calciner listed there carried a price of $35,000. If I were interested in that unit, I would bring a dosimeter with me during the inspection.
If you Google “White Mesa Uranium Mill”, you will find a host of articles decrying large-scale trucking of nuclear waste to the mill, as well as its spotty environmental record. In 2008, the Utah DAQ found missing, inoperable and unpermitted equipment at the mill. In their final report, DAQ’s lack of urgency and enforcement reminded me of lax oversight at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant prior to March 2011. When the tsunami flooded all of the emergency generators at the plant, a cascade of failures began, leading to a nuclear fuel meltdown on May 13, 2011.
The Denison Mines White Mesa Mill is not in danger of a nuclear meltdown. The yellowcake produced there is not fissionable. Still, in its final recommendations for their next inspection, the Utah DAQ report suggested in typical understated fashion, “Bring a respirator – It may be needed in certain areas of the facility”.
On June 3, 2011, I rolled up the front gate at White Mesa Mill, which appeared to be in full operation. Visible smoke issued from two large exhaust stacks on the east side of the mill. Although the 2008 DAQ report indicated that no single source of particulates at the mill should exceed twenty percent opacity, to me the visible smoke completely obscured the blue sky beyond it. Admittedly, I did not have proper optical measuring equipment that day. Still, a simple webcam pointing at the stacks from a position that shows a solid background should solve that problem. If asked, I would be happy to supply a free webcam system to the Utah DAQ. With the installation of a solid black “billboard” behind each stack, DAQ compliance officers could remotely monitor the opacity of released particulates. If the mill were in compliance, Denison Mines could use the calibrated webcam images to prove it.
Finally, what shall become of the poorest, least represented and closest proximity residents to the White Mesa Mill? If trends identified in the 2000 and 2010 census prevail, the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation at White Mesa will continue its decline. Once a thriving settlement that featured paved roads, utilities and framed houses, the neighborhood at White Mesa is now derelict and decaying. A quick drive through “town” shows many abandoned homes. With six square miles of nuclear and chemical waste nearby, the resale market for property at White Mesa, let alone Blanding, Utah is fading like the smoke from White Mesa Mill.
Since the dry climate in Southeastern Utah slows decay, these relics of Native American culture might well be standing at White Mesa one thousand years from now. What will future archeologists think when they discover an abandoned ruin near an abandoned uranium mill and a large pile of nuclear contaminated waste?