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Native-led march protests possible contamination from White Mesa uranium mill

Members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Navajo Nation led a march on Saturday in protest against the operation of the only running uranium mill in the United States.

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Ellis Berry
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KSJD
Yolanda Badback is a lifelong member of White Mesa and a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. She was one of the leaders of Saturday's march.

Some in the White Mesa Community say the mill, which was built in the 1970s, may be contaminating the local environment. It’s also become a dumping ground for radioactive waste from across North America.

The White Mesa mill sits just a few miles north of the Ute Mountain Ute community of White Mesa in Southeast Utah.
Yolanda Badback, a tribal member and a lifelong resident of White Mesa, says she and her family have had to adjust their lives to protect themselves from possible contamination caused by the mill:

“Our community members here don't drink the water,” she said. “We go out and purchase water to drink.”

Badback led the annual, five mile march through the desert on Saturday to the White Mesa Mill, which is operated by a Canadian company named Energy Fuels Incorporated. Curtis Moore, Vice President of Marketing & Corporate Development at Energy Fuels, says the mill is operating in accordance with Utah’s Environmental Quality standards:

“And I can assure them that, that we're not polluting the groundwater, we're not, you know, we're not polluting the air,” he said. “We're very proud of our track record.”

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Ellis Berry
/
KSJD
Yolanda Badback, her mother Thelma Whiskers, and other tribal members sang during Saturday's march.

Moore also said the mill has plans to expand operations because rare earth minerals are in high demand due to increased electric car production.

Scott Clow, Ute Mountain Ute’s Environmental Programs Director, says White Mesa Mill had an accident in 2012 that created a discolored cloud. Locals call it the Brown Cloud Incident.

When Clow asked EnergyFuels for a follow up report on the brown cloud, data was never given. And he says the incident makes him wonder about OTHER accidents that aren’t immediately visible.

“It's the accidents,” Clow said. “So, oh great, you want to process rare earths? Tell us about that. How are you going to do that safely?

According to company officials, Energy Fuels does not release information on how the mill regulates dangerous minerals and chemicals, and refers to the state of Utah’s Environmental Quality website for guidance.