WHITE MESA, Utah — Aldean Ketchum has played his people’s traditional flute across the Southwest.
“These are our homelands where my people lived and survived here for thousands of years,” he said.
Ketchum’s biggest gig was at opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics, where athletes from around the world came to Utah. He is less pleased about something else coming to Utah.
“That’s one thing I can’t understand — how the government allows other countries to come in and utilize, make money off it and then leave the mess behind for us to clean,” Ketchum said.
The White Mesa Uranium Mill opened in San Juan County in 1980. It sits next door to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe reservation and about 5 miles from the hamlet where Ketchum and about 300 other tribal members live, also called White Mesa.
The residents and their allies say it’s time for the federal government to change how it regulates the mill – if not close it altogether.
It’s the only conventional uranium mill still operating in the United States. One way the mill has stayed in business is by accepting material – the mill’s owner calls it “uranium-bearing material,” opponents call it waste – from nuclear facilities.
FOX 13's Nate Carlisle and Amy Nay discuss below the controversial uranium mill in Utah
The mill’s 65 workers then extract the remaining uranium and other ores. The byproducts remain at the mill.
The shipments have come from across the United States as well as Japan and Estonia. The federal government sees the mill as a uranium processing plant and does not regulate it as a toxic waste disposal site, which is how tribal members and environmentalists see it.
“The air here, it blows in different directions,” said Scott Clow, the environmental project manager for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. “In the nighttime, it shifts and blows more toward the White Mesa Ute community.”
The tribe has two main concerns.
One is radon – a cancer-causing gas. Uranium tailings sit in retention ponds where water reduces the spread of radon.
On a flight for journalists organized by the Grand Canyon Trust and another environmental group, EcoFlight, one of the mill’s large retention ponds appeared to be only partially filled. The Environmental Protection Agency in December sent the mill’s owner a notice that it was in violation of clean air standards and estimated the pond was emitting 10 times the amount of radon as a full pond.
“Grand Canyon Trust’s ultimate goal is to have the mill close and clean up,” said Tim Peterson, cultural landscapes director at Grand Canyon Trust.
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality notified the mill of radiation and water violations about 80 times from 1999 through 2013 – and just once since then. Most of those infractions were minor and did not trigger penalties.
The biggest fine -- $62,500 – wasn’t even for polluting. It was for failing to obtain proper permitting and updating plans for construction at the mill.
“The white Mesa mill is really an important piece of critical infrastructure for the United States,” said Curtis Moore, the vice president of marketing and corporate development for the mill’s owner, Colorado-based Energy Fuels.
“Uranium is, of course, the fuel for nuclear energy, which provides about 20% of all electricity in the United States,” Moore said.
The mill is also recovering rare earth elements, including those used in products like electric cars. One element, vanadium, is used in steel alloys and rechargeable batteries.
Moore said the mill was recovering vanadium from that tailings pond and believed the EPA had approved.
“We had determined that we could recover vanadium out of that particular evaporation pond,” Moore said, “but in order to do that, we'd have to draw the water levels down and expose some crystals.”
Moore said the company is refilling the pond.
Extraction processes at the mill aren’t necessarily efficient. Moore says the mill has extracted 6 million pounds of uranium out of 700 million pounds of material received from other facilities.
The tribe is also concerned about water. Both the tribe and the mill agree there’s a nitrate plume in a nearby aquifer.
It’s not the aquifer from which White Mesa pumps its drinking water, but the tribe worries the contaminants will spread into their drinking water.
The tribe and their supporters also fear contaminants will spread into the San Juan River and then into the Colorado River.
Clow suspects the nitrates are from the mill but acknowledges research needs to be done.
“The source of the pollution should really be identified,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality says there’s never been drinking water contamination because of activities at the mill. Moore said there are groundwater monitors around the mill.
“Through our stringent groundwater monitoring program,” Moore added, “there is no evidence of any potential impact to any groundwater in the region.”
The nitrates mystery is evidence of a larger problem to Clow – a lack of scientific study about the impacts of a the mill accepting the materials from other radioactive sites.
“We feel there should be a new assessment of environmental impacts in the present and the future,” he said.
Ketchum, 58, fears by the time the impacts are studied, he and his family will already be sickened and his tribe’s land poisoned.
“The way we consider sharing our culture is through the landscape,” Ketchum said.