WHITE MESA, Utah — A few miles from Michael Badback’s home are springs bubbling from the brown soil of southeast Utah.
“They used to bring us here when we were children,” Badback said standing beside the spring.
“And we used to cut sumac bushes,” he added, “they [would] make baskets and they used to come and collect sumac berries to make porridge for everybody to drink.”
“We don't do that anymore.”
Badback lives in the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe hamlet of White Mesa. The tribe used to drink out of the springs, but in recent years, they’ve been told it has contaminants. The nearby trees are also bearing less fruits and berries, sending tribal members farther to find native fruits and natural medicines.
Tribe members blame the nearby White Mesa Uranium Mill. There is little evidence the mill is responsible for contaminants that were found in the spring. That’s also one of the tribe’s points.
The last environmental impact study was from before the mill’s opening in 1980.
“The tribe has been here, uh, forever,” said Scott Clow, the environmental projects manager for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. “And we want the tribe to continue to be here and be safe forever.”
Clow said he’s concerned about air and water quality. He wants new environmental assessments.
Yolanda Badback would like the mill to move.
Like her brother, Michael, she lives in White Mesa – about 5 miles from the mill. She’s been making the same complaints for years.
“During the summer, when it gets too hot, we always feel the chemicals coming off of the ponds that are being released there,” she said.
“Like a real strong chemical smell. It's more like a metal-type thing,” she added. “They keep telling us everything's okay, but apparently everybody here in our community ... [doesn't] trust it.”
The lack of trust extends to the drinking water. The springs Michael Badback described are not from the aquifer where White Mesa pumps its water. Both the state of Utah and Clow say the drinking water is safe — at least for now.
Yet residents like the Badbacks assume what pours from their taps is tainted. They drive 11 miles to Blanding, Utah, or 65 miles to Cortez, Colorado, to buy drinking water.
“So that’s indirect impact to tribal culture and community there because of fear about the mill,” Clow said.
Curtis Moore, the vice president of marketing and corporate development for the mill’s owner, Colorado-based Energy Fuels, calls the mill, “such a good news story down there. And there's a few people that are just bound and determined to turn it into some sort of a boogeyman.”
Air and groundwater monitoring stations surround the mill to alert to problems, he said.
As for that odor Yolanda Badback and other White Mesa residents report, he said there’s never been any documentation of smells traveling to the community.
“The only place I've ever smelled anything at the mill — and even being on-site — is inside that [mill] building,” Moore said.
The Environmental Protection Agency in December sent the mill’s owner a notice that it was in violation of clean air standards because one tailings pond wasn’t filled with water. The EPA estimated the pond was emitting 10 times the amount of radon as a full pond. Radon causes cancer but does not have a smell.
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.
Moore acknowledges the mill does not have a good relationship with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.
“We would love to have a conversation with them,” he said. “I mean, at the end of the day, they're not going away, we're not going away.”
Energy Fuels has created a new charitable foundation.
“We hope a bunch of that money does go to initiatives that can help the health of people in the White Mesa community,” Moore said.
Michael Badback says he’s not interested.
“I wouldn’t take any amount of money,” he said, “because like, our future, my grandson’s future is at stake now.”