The Obama administration pointedly excluded the White Canyon uranium district from the Bears Ears National Monument, disappointing the tribes that proposed the monument and paleontologists who hoped to see the canyons’ Triassic fossils protected.
But President Barack Obama’s nod to mining interests isn’t stopping Utah officials from claiming that the 1.3-million-acre monument he designated last year will destroy the state’s uranium industry.
In comments submitted to the Interior Department for Secretary Ryan Zinke’s review of 27 large national monuments, the Legislature’s Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands argued the Bears Ears designation not only abused the Antiquities Act, but also undermines national security by disrupting access to fissionable materials needed for electrical generation and military readiness — a claim dismissed as nonsense by many observers.
“The extraction industries that once flourished in San Juan County will be permanently eliminated by the Monument,” claims the 49-page document, signed by commission co-chairmen Rep. Keven Stratton and Sen. David Hinkins.
But rescinding the monument, they wrote, could put San Juan County and Utah at the center of supplying enriched uranium to U.S. nuclear power plants, submarines in its naval fleet and the arsenal of nuclear weapons “we use to keep our nation safe.”
Zinke is expected to submit his Bears Ears recommendations by Saturday to the president. Utah officials have predicted he will call for the monument’s elimination or severe reduction.
The state’s comments voice fears for the future of the nation’s last operating uranium mill at White Mesa in southeastern Utah, operated by Energy Fuels Inc. headquartered in Lakewood, Colo. Located six miles south of Blanding, the mill and its waste ponds sit outside the eastern boundary of the monument, a 65-mile drive across Bears Ears to Energy Fuels’ Daneros mine in Bullseye Canyon.
“While Daneros is outside the monument, the access road from the highway to the mine, and the highway from the mine to White Mesa go right through the current monument,” Energy Fuels spokesman Curtis Moore wrote in an e-mail. “While we know our activities at White Mesa and Daneros won’t impact Bears Ears or any monuments, the activists are salivating to exploit the monument as another weapon to attack our operations.”
That was news to Anne Mariah Tapp of the Grand Canyon Trust, which is challenging the mill’s operations in court. She couldn’t think of how the monument designation could be used to close the mill, although air-quality standards may be tightened.
Tapp said the concerns are “overblown at best and deceptive at worst” since President Barack Obama heeded the county’s request to not encumber the area’s uranium deposits with monument status.
“Characterizing the Bears Ears region as a keystone for America’s energy independence based on its uranium supplies ignores the low grade of the uranium deposits in southeast Utah, ignores the fact that the United States has a significant amount of already-mined uranium stockpiled and available for use, and ignores the fact that the White Mesa Mill routinely sells its product to international customers such as South Korean utilities,” Tapp said.
The Grand Canyon Trust, along with the HEAL Utah and Moab-based Uranium Watch, argue the mill is really a repository for radioactive waste that could contaminate groundwater and air quality. Along with mined ore, the facility processes wastes from nuclear sites into uranium products used in power generation and stores the tailings in ponds.
The company rejects the groups’ claims that the mill harms the environment.
“They’re simply anti-nuclear and anti-mining, regardless of how responsibly it is done,” Moore said. “The mill operates in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations with regard to public health, worker safety, and environmental protection.”
Tons of ore are stockpiled at the site for processing should the price of uranium rebound, according to Josh Ewing, executive director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, a pro-monument stewardship group based in nearby Bluff.
Like Tapp, Ewing said he saw “no validity” to claims the monument could disrupt mill operations because Energy Fuels has access to plenty of uranium sources and the monument proclamation honors all existing mineral claims within its boundaries.
“What should be the deciding factor if that mill stays open is if it can be operated safely,” Ewing said. “An aquifer runs under that mill. We don’t have evidence that the aquifer is contaminated, but we don’t want it to be.”
But the state contends the mill is in jeopardy.
“Permanently locking up a rich uranium mining area, and threatening the existence of the United States’ only uranium mill capable of producing yellow-cake, is totally contrary to the President’s agenda to ensure that our nation is safe, and energy independent,” the comments state.
By invoking national security, Utah officials are deploying a rationale used by past presidents to shrink national monuments, such as Dwight Eisenhower’s Cold War-era decision to knock acres out of Glacier Bay National Park for a military airfield.
The state’s claims are echoed in an anti-monument video posted by Utah think tank Sutherland Institute, which quotes mill supervisor Logan Shumway regarding the future of the Daneros Mine. He claimed the mill supports 100 good-paying jobs, although a company executive told regulators on Thursday that the mill, currently running below full capacity, employs about 60 people.
“Without that mine we don’t have anything to do at this mill and we have to lay people off and send people home,” Shumway said. The mine, however, has been idled for the past five years due to low uranium prices.
The state’s Bears Ears comments blame President Obama’s policies for the industry’s woes, which, state officials claim, the monument will surely exacerbate.
“The monument threatens the existence of the White Mesa mill, forever prevents any new mining operations within the Monument, and threatens to eliminate all existing mining operations within the Monument,” the state comments say.
That gloom, however, is not reflected in Energy Fuels’ own financial disclosures.
“At this time, the impact to the Company of the Bears Ears National Monument designation is not known, however it is possible that the Daneros Project and/or the White Mesa Mill could become subject to additional requirements, restrictions and costs as a result of the designation,” the company, a subsidiary of a Canadian firm, wrote in its most recent annual report.