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After running for more than a decade on an expired state permit, the controversial White Mesa Uranium Mill in southeastern Utah is on the cusp getting a new operating license and possibly a new job contract.
Hearings convene Thursday at state Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control offices in Salt Lake City to gather public comment on a permit renewal application the mill's owner first filed in 2007, with the possibility of issuing a completed license by year's end.
While they're at it, state regulators hope to get public input on three other issues as well:
• Re-issuing of the mills' groundwater discharge permit, which requires the plant to take steps to prevent groundwater contamination, and;
• Mill owner Energy Fuels' proposed plans for closing and reclaiming several old tailings cells at the site;
• The company's request to accept a new source of radioactive waste at White Mesa.
It's unusual for four issues of such magnitude to go out for public comment all at once and that alone has drawn ire from some environmentalists. But White Mesa's request to accept another "alternative feed" of waste has drawn the most criticism.
If granted, the White Mesa mill would be allowed to accept radioactive material from a decommissioned uranium enrichment plant called Sequoyah Fuels in Gore, Oklahoma. The Sequoyah Fuels material could then be used as an alternative to conventional uranium ore that White Mesa could process to extract uranium before disposing of the remaining waste.
Curtis Moore, vice president of marketing and corporate development for Energy Fuels, called the company a "strategic asset" and the only facility in America capable of processing uranium ore and other waste materials to make useable uranium products for energy production.
"We believe we are performing a valuable service," Moore said, "as we are recycling otherwise unuseable material into fuel for clean, nuclear energy."
State regulators also see the proposed alternative feed was a win-win, according to Phil Goble, who oversees uranium mills and radioactive materials at the state Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control. The material White Mesa wants to accept is cheaper than traditional ore a plus given the current low market price for the concentrated uranium, known as yellowcake, the mill produces. And the agreement will basically amount to recycling, Goble said.
But environmentalists are not convinced. They say the agreement amounts to disposing of radioactive waste at a facility that is not licensed as, or run like, a waste-disposal site.
"What they claim they are doing is taking volumes of waste from around the country and extracting useful uranium from it," said Matt Pacenza, executive director of the Salt Lake City-based advocacy group HEAL Utah. "What it seems White Mesa really is, is a poorly licensed nuclear waste facility."
One leading environmental group said Lakewood, Colo.-based Energy Fuels' business model "appears to be rather suspect."
"Sometimes the company gets paid just to process the stuff" so that the waste can be disposed of on-site, said Aaron Paul, staff attorney at the Grand Canyon Trust, an Arizona-based organization that works on regional environmental concerns. "The yellowcake isn't worth the cost of processing."
That practice rests on dubious legal ground, Paul said, and there are associated environmental and health-related concerns.
The mill was originally built in the 1970s to process conventional uranium ore. Based on that, Paul said, the mill was located about 5 miles from the Ute Mountain Ute reservation town of White Mesa.
"The decision to put the mill there was not based on the sort of analysis that would be done today to decide where to put" a waste facility, Paul said.
The mill's tailings cells were designed for the disposal of ore-related byproducts, he said, raising doubts the mill can safely contain contamination associated with new radioactive waste streams. Placing other forms of waste in the cells could cause them to leak, Paul said, and there has been little to no analysis related to how various wastes the mill receives might react to one another.
Alternative feed arrangements are not new to White Mesa. The mill has been permitted to accept waste materials from sites around the country for about 25 years, said Goble, with the state Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control. If approved, the Sequoyah Fuels waste would be the third alternative feed the state has approved at White Mesa.
Moore said Energy Fuels has operated in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations, and has "responsibly produced uranium since 1980" while offering good-paying jobs with benefits to the surrounding communities.
Goble confirmed that the company currently operates within the bounds of its permits.
The company has been cited for prior violations, he said, and mill officials are now working to cleaning up two plumes of contaminated groundwater beneath the mill one of which likely predates the White Mesa operation and another that Goble said was almost certainly a result of "poor housekeeping."
State officials will begin taking public comment Thursday in Salt Lake City, followed by a hearing on June 15 in Blanding.
An official with the Moab-based environmental group Uranium Watch complained that state regulators have made it hard for advocates and the public to weigh in, by combining so many issues into a single public comment period.
"It may be more efficient for the state," said Sarah Fields, program director for Uranium Watch, "but it's hard to look at all of this information."
Fields said she has already found "incomplete, inaccurate information" in the state's paperwork regarding the permits. Some of the state's analysis assumes waste will be disposed in one place, she said, while other documents discuss depositing it in other locations on site.
Fields also said the state's 10-year delay in processing the White Mesa application has left some of the materials potentially out of date, making review even more difficult.
Goble said the state has continued to work on the permits over the last decade, in spite of delays from bureaucratic turnover, years of back-and-forth between the state and the company, a prior public comment period and time spent building in-house computer models for the White Mesa mill's operations.
But Paul, like many other environmentalists, said the last time White Mesa's operating permit was fully vetted was 1997 in spite of rules the permit be reviewed every ten years.
"So as a consequence of the delay, the mill has been running for twice the permitted license period," said Paul, who urged officials to "take a step back" on approving new radioactive waste at White Mesa.
Twitter: @EmaPen Public Hearings
The public can comment on permits at the White Mesa Uranium Mill at two hearings:
Salt Lake City • June 8, 1 p.m., at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, 195 North 1950 West.
Blanding • June 15, 5 p.m., at the Blanding Arts and Events Center, 715 West 200 South.
Residents can also mail written comments to P.O. Box 144880, Salt Lake City, UT 84114-4850 or send email to email@example.com, with Public Comment on White Mesa RML Renewal as the subject line.
All comments are due by June 30, 2017.