Uranium milling under attack
Contamination, leakage alleged at nearby site

SideStory: The view from White Mesa: Uranium looks to years of growth

Remnants of the last uranium boom rest beneath a concrete cap at the Durango Smelter Superfund site in Ridges Basin. Conservationists are fighting a bid to process 32,000 tons of radioactive waste at the White Mesa Mill in Blanding, material that could be transported through Durango./Photo by Jared Boyd

by Will Sands

Conservationists have opened fire on a key piece of the Four Corners uranium renaissance. The Glen Canyon Group of the Sierra Club is fighting a recent approval, which would allow the White Mesa Mill in eastern Utah to process 32,000 pounds of radioactive sludge from Oklahoma. However, if the approval is not overturned, there is a chance that all 32,000 pounds could be trucked through Durango.

The White Mesa Uranium Mill has been in business in Blanding, Utah, since 1978. Originally set up to enrich uranium ore, the slump in the uranium market forced the mill to adopt a different approach – culling uranium out of tailings from other operations. Now, a new proposal by the International Uranium Corp., the mill’s owner, has drawn the opposition of the Sierra Group. Last year, the IUC received approval from the Utah Division of Radiation Control to reprocess 32,000 tons of radioactive sludge from a bankrupt facility in Muskogee, Okla., which is undergoing clean up.

“The original process extracted rare earth materials from ore, and uranium and thorium were the waste materials,” explained Jim Shepard, of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “The waste is being transported to Utah because the licensee wants to reclaim the Muskogee site, and the radioactive concentrate is above what they’d be able to have on site.”

The 32,000 pounds of “hot” sludge would be transported from Oklahoma to Albuquerque by rail. At that point, it would be transferred to trucks and hauled either up U.S. Highway 550 and through Durango before turning west for Blanding or by a route through Gallup, Shiprock and Cortez along U.S. Highway 491.

“At this time, I have no idea what the actual routing in New Mexico, Colorado and Southern Utah will be,” Shepard said.

The Sierra Club’s objections concern the sludge after it has arrived at the White Mesa Mill, however. The group has charged that the mill is poorly equipped to handle such a large load of tailings, since its disposal cells date to 1978. Further, the White Mesa Mill is also contaminated and leaking radioactive waste, according to the group.

Sarah Fields, the Sierra Club’s Nuclear Waste Committee chair, commented, “The State of Utah has determined that the tailings cells at the mill were inadequately constructed and do not meet current EPA requirements for a leak detection system.”

In addition, high loads of contaminants have been found in the groundwater surrounding the mill. The Sierra Club reported Notices of Violation and other public records detailing this contamination. However, the mill’s owner has countered that the contamination is the result of “natural causes.”

“It makes no sense for IUC to dispose of material that will more than double some of the toxic contaminants in the tailings,” Fields added.

The Sierra Club took the fight to Blanding last Friday, when Travis Stills and Brad Bartlett, attorneys with Durango’s Energy Mineral Law Center, argued against the Muskogee transfer. In an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. session, the Utah Radiation Control Board heard the challenge but postponed any decision.

Ronni Egan, executive director of the Durango-based Great Old Broads for Wilderness, was on-hand for the hearing. “From what I saw, it looks as if the conditions at the mill, which is 30 years old, are really dicey already,” she said. “Compacting the existing problems with vast quantities of toxic sludge seems pretty foolhardy.”

Egan added that the water table is relatively close to the surface in the Blanding area, making the transfer and processing of the sludge especially risky. “I’m not a scientist, but it seems to me that the most up-to-date technology needs to be installed before anything else is brought to the White Mesa Mill,” she said.

And while IUC may be pinning some of its hopes on a new uranium boom and renewed activity at its mines and the mill (see sidebar), Egan is not so sure. “From what I understand, the quality of the uranium that’s left in the Four Corners is low enough that the price is really going to have to go through the roof to make it feasible,” she said.

The Utah Radiation Control Board will take up the Sierra Club’s appeal again this Fri., Feb. 2. A decision on the Muskogee shipments is expected at that time. •

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