Ute tribe argues that uranium waste threatens water

Grand Canyon Trust releases video on contamination danger

by Jim Mimiaga, originally posted on May 3, 2016


In a video released Tuesday, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Grand Canyon Trust claim that the White Mesa uranium mill in southeast Utah puts local water sources at risk of contamination.

The 36-year-old mill is the only conventional uranium mill operating in the country. It also borders the White Mesa community, a satellite reservation of the Ute Mountain Ute reservation.

“Half Life: The Story of America’s Last Uranium Mill” states that insufficient liners under the mill’s older waste containment ponds threaten water aquifers and could migrate to local springs relied on by the tribe, local cities, livestock, plants and wildlife.

“Seeps and springs are the only water sources in the area, and the concern is that radioactive, toxic waste from tailing cell impoundments will migrate down and find its way to these springs,” said Colin Larrick, a water-quality specialist with the Ute Mountain Ute tribe.

There are two aquifers underneath the tailing ponds. A perched aquifer in the Burro Canyon formation is 100 feet under surface and feeds local springs.

The deeper Navajo aquifer lies 1200 feet below the surface and supplies drinking water for the towns of Blanding, White Mesa, Bluff, Tuba city and Hopi Villages, according to the film.

Groundwater in the area flows south from the uranium mill towards the White Mesa community.

To date no contamination has reached any of the four springs regularly monitored by the tribe. But in the video, the tribe says there is growing evidence of a heavy-metal plume migrating toward the springs.

“At a monitoring well, we’re seeing the groundwater become very acidic recently, and we are seeing a huge spike in a lot of the heavy metals which are in the tailings facility,” Larrick said.

Three of the mill’s waste impoundment ponds were built in the early 1980s and are a suspected cause, according to the video. The so-called “legacy impoundments” use a 30 mm PVC liner that the Grand Canyon Trust and tribe claim are in poor condition, with one having documented leaks.

Larrick said the liners at the bottom of the impoundments have a useful life of 20 years and are in direct contact with the perched aquifer 100 feet below the surface.

“They remain the only barrier between radioactive tailings and groundwater,” he says. “Any liquid migration through liners would introduce those fluids into aquifer. If contamination from the mill did show up at seeps, the resources would be unusable to tribe, and quite possibly toxic to wildlife and human use.”

Other waste-containment ponds at the mill are more modern and use double liners that are 60 mm each with a system for leak detection.

The White Mesa mill processes uranium ore into yellow cake that is then shipped and made into fuel rods for nuclear power plants. But it also process low-grade radioactive materials from federal atomic testing facilities and industrial sites across the country.

“In early ’90s, industry and the U.S. government cooked up the idea to send these radioactive waste dumps to (White Mesa),” said Travis Stills, an attorney for Energy and Conservation Law.

The ore and feeder wastes are milled for uranium, and waste material is stored in the containment ponds.

Malcolm Lehi represents the White Mesa Community on the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council.

“Water is sacred to us and in White Mesa it is something we lack,” he said. “The state needs to take a closer look at the impacts. If the springs were to become contaminated, it would probably mean we would have to leave our homelands.”

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