Uranium mill west of Cortez faces possible suit over radon

Environmental group alleges violations at White Mesa

The White Mesa uranium mill near Blanding, Utah. Enlargephoto

Courtesy photo

The White Mesa uranium mill near Blanding, Utah.

Grand Canyon Trust has filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue Energy Fuels Resources for violations of the Clean Air Act and illegal tailing storage practices at its White Mesa uranium mill in southeast Utah.

The Jan. 29 notice indicates ongoing violations of radon emissions from tailing piles at the mill that exceed Clean Air Act standards. It also blames the mill and Utah regulatory agencies for the operation of tailing impoundments that are out of compliance for the number allowed and size under federal environmental laws.

“Our position is simple: Radiological pollution is dangerous, and uranium milling must comply with laws lessening that danger,” said Anne Mariah Tapp, an attorney for Grand Canyon Trust.

Under the Clean Air Act’s National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Pollutants (NESHAP), “Radon-222 emissions to the ambient air from an existing uranium mill tailings pile shall not exceed 20 (picocuries).”

According to Grand Canyon Trust, the White Mesa mill exceeded the allowable radon emission at impoundment cell 2 based on monthly reports filed with the Utah Department of Environmental Quality Division of Radiation Control.

The notice reveals that Energy Fuel’s own report shows average radon emissions of 25.9pCi/(ft-sec) from the cell in 2012, exceeding the Clean Air Act standard.

As a result of the 2012 violations, Energy Fuels commenced monthly monitoring in April 2013. Averaging the results from April to December 2013, the average radon levels from cell 2 were reported at 20.42, also exceeding the standard.

Radon danger

The White Mesa Mill is the only conventional uranium mill operating in the U.S. The mill is in San Juan County, Utah, within ten miles of two communities, Blanding, population 3,000, and White Mesa, a satellite reservation community of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe numbering 300 residents.

The mill processes uranium ore into yellow cake, which is shipped to processing plants and made into fuel rods for nuclear power plants. For every pound of yellow cake produced, approximately 1 ton of still-radioactive processing wastes is left at the mill stored in tailings cells, also called impoundments.

These disposal pits for radioactive wastes are the most significant source of Radon-222 from uranium mills, according to legal documents filed by Grand Canyon Trust.

“Airborne Radon-222 atoms emitted from these tailings impoundments attach themselves to airborne dust particles and . . . can travel many miles before decaying,” documents state. “People breathing air downwind of tailing impoundments then inhale the radioactive dust.”

According to the EPA’s Citizens Guide to Radon “there is no safe level of radon — any exposure poses some risk of cancer.”

Tailing storage

The pending lawsuit also claims Energy Fuels is violating the number and size of uranium tailings storage cells allowed under the Clean Air Act.

According to the filing, the mill is operating six impoundments, although only two are allowed to be used under hazardous materials law. Also, two of the tailing cells are slightly larger than the allowable maximum size of 40 acres.

Grand Canyon Trusts states “the violations of the impoundment limits have been going on for the past five years.”

The group claims that the Utah Department of Environmental quality, Division of Radiation Control, authorizes hazardous material storage practices at White Mesa that are out of compliance with environmental laws.

According to the intent-to-sue notice, the Mill’s Radioactive Materials License Renewal and Groundwater Discharge permit authorizes “tailings disposal in five separate impoundments,” although only two are allowed to be used.

In addition to mill waste disposal at Cells 1, 2, 3, 4A and 4B, Roberts Pond also qualifies as an impoundment, according to the notice, because it receives uranium by-product material, spills, and overflows during the operation of the facility.

Grand Canyon Trust cites a Feb. 19, 2004, email from Harold R. Roberts, chief operating officer of Energy Fuels to Lauren Morton, Environmental Program Manager at Utah Division of Radiation Control, that confirms the pond is used for uranium by-product materials, and therefore counts toward the over-limit violation.

Also, according to the notice, two of the tailings cell’s 42-acre size violate the 40- acre limit set by the EPA.

Energy Fuels responds

Citing poor market conditions, Energy Fuels announced in December that it planned to close the White Mesa mill in 2014 and potentially reopen it in 2015.

When contacted about Grand Canyon Trusts legal actions, Energy Fuels spokesman Curtis Moore responded from Denver that the company disagrees with the claims and that matters are being resolved.

“The issues raised by this group are either inaccurate, have been addressed, or are being addressed as part of the normal regulatory processes,” Moore said. “Energy Fuels and the regulators are well aware of these matters, none of which has resulted in a violation.”

The alleged regulatory violations of radon levels and too many impoundment cells under operation and their size is significant, according to Grand Canyon Trust.

“EPA recognized that the volatile nature of the uranium industry could lead to periods of non-operation when tailings impoundments could dry and emit more Radon-222. The simultaneous operation of six impoundments significantly increases the amount of unreclaimed tailings(.) Consequently, there is greater likelihood that larger areas of tailings will experience drying, and that nearby populations and the environment will experience increased exposure to Radon-222.”

Tapp, The Trust’s attorney, says the mill’s planned shutdown “presents Energy Fuels an opportunity to remedy problems that must be fixed before it reopens.”

If a lawsuit is required to remedy problems, Grand Canyon Trust says they will ask a federal district court to impose upon Energy Fuels civil penalties of up to $37,500 per day per violation and mitigation.

In an interview, Taylor McKinnon, director of energy for Grand Canyon Trust, said the legacy of reckless uranium mining and milling in the Southwest has hurt the land and the people.

“The region’s radioactive pollution is one of the great environmental injustices in American history,” he said. “Laws are put in place to prevent it from happening again, and the laws are not being followed here.”

Grand Canyon Trust cites concerns about the White Mesa Mill from Ute Mountain Ute chairman Manuel Heart, reported in a recent story in The Cortez Journal.

The tribe has long been critical of the mill, and recently challenged renewal radioactive permits from Utah Division of Environmental quality fearing health and safety of tribal members living just a few miles from the mill. But they were was unsuccessful and five-year permits were renewed.

“We’ve always had concerns of contamination from the mill onto our land and water sources,” Heart said. “I would like to see it permanently shut down.”

jmimiaga@cortezjournal.com