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Along a 300-mile hauling route, Navajo uranium concerns collide with U.S. clean energy agenda

A truck hauling radioactive material arrives at the White Mesa Mill near Blanding, Utah.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
A truck hauling radioactive material arrives at the White Mesa Mill near Blanding, Utah.
Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

‘When you run it, you kinda gotta run it’

Inside the White Mesa Mill, the nation’s only operating conventional uranium mill, all of the walls, handrails and catwalks are coated in yellow paint, except for one spot.

“It was hard to see if you actually had some of that material on the handrail, because it blended,” said mill engineer Steve Snyder. “We went with gray painting, so that we could see if we had anything getting outside of the tanks.”

The material he’s talking about is yellowcake.

This southeastern Utah facility, which resembles an industrial warehouse, is where Energy Fuels crushes gray-like uranium ore into that yellow powdery substance, then an olive green solid called U308.

From here, the final product is shipped off for further processing by Honeywell in the U.S. or the Canada-based Cameco Corporation, the world’s largest publicly traded uranium company.

The gray-painted area is where tanks of yellowcake are processed inside the White Mesa Mill.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
The gray-painted area is where tanks of yellowcake are processed inside the White Mesa Mill.

“We package this up into 55-gallon drums, and we ship that on to the secondary processing facility, because ultimately, we’re just the preliminary processing,” Snyder said. “The fact that it’s on your hand is not a problem. This is not, in and of itself, a usable form.”

That’s done through a chemical process known as leaching. Sulfuric acid is added to a slurry mix, with a beach-sand consistency, to separate materials by dissolving uranium from rock and mineral particulates, called tailings. Those are then stored on-site and never leave ponds, some as large as 40 acres, that are drained and covered by eight feet of topsoil years later.

But right now, the White Mesa Mill, which has been around since 1980, has been undergoing routine maintenance. It’s licensed to process more than 8 million pounds of uranium annually, as well as vanadium and rare earth products.

Entrance to White Mesa Mill in southeastern Utah.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
Entrance to White Mesa Mill in southeastern Utah.

On any given day, this 4,000-acre facility can process up to 2,000 tons of uranium ore. That processing takes place in runs.

“We call them runs because you have some variability in processing speed, but it’s not infinite,” Snyder explained. “When you run it, you kinda gotta run it.”

An ore run can last between six and eight months, if multiple mines that feed into the mill are operational.

“Have a month or two off, where we do maintenance and repairs and build ore back up on the pad, and then we’ll run another ore run,” said Snyder, as he walked around piles of uranium ore from different mines in the product yard. “So, you can see, we’re gonna start processing uranium in a couple of months here, so they’re preparing for that.”

The Pinyon Plain Mine, near the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, has stockpiled more than a ton of uranium ore. This estimate was disclosed to KJZZ News during a mine tour in May. Assistant mine superintendent Matt Germansen also confirmed that Energy Fuels would not truck this material itself, but rather contract another company to do so.

Energy Fuels, however, would train and monitor that company to ensure that compliance with their permitting condition is held “to the highest standard,” Germansen said.

More than a ton of uranium ore from the Pinyon Plain Mine sits on an ore pad, which is permitted to hold up to 13,000 pounds.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
More than a ton of uranium ore from the Pinyon Plain Mine sits on an ore pad, which is permitted to hold up to 13,000 pounds. 

When asked if a trucking company has been hired yet, Curtis Moore, Energy Fuels’ senior vice president of marketing and corporate development, told KJZZ News “no contract has been signed.”

Either way, the Navajo Nation has been sounding the alarm.

‘Causes me not to sleep at night, it’s all related to the price of uranium’

The tribe is worried about the imminent hauling of this radioactive uranium ore through its reservation – the largest in the U.S. – and its communities. Uranium has a deadly legacy on the Navajo Nation, which is dotted with more than 500 abandoned mines from previous decades.

In response, the Navajo Nation prohibited uranium mining and processing on its lands through the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act in 2005. Then, seven years later, the tribe banned the transport of uranium through the Radioactive and Related Substances Equipment, Vehicles, Persons and Materials Transportation Act.

But the federal government maintains jurisdiction over federal highways, so the transportation of uranium is allowed on U.S. 89 and U.S. 160 through the Navajo Nation, and is regulated by agencies such as the U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Today, most conventional uranium processing mills in the U.S. have already been decommissioned or are in the process of being decommissioned, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They are typically located within areas of low population density and process ore from within a 100-mile radius.

But the White Mesa Mill is different.

Uranium ore extracted from the Pinyon Plain Mine near the Grand Canyon will be hauled in trucks on a 300-mile route that cuts through the Navajo Nation to its final destination in San Juan County, home to some 14,400 residents.

The White Mesa Mill in San Juan County, Utah.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
The White Mesa Mill in San Juan County, Utah.

Snyder said that 300-mile route will be the longest from any of Energy Fuels’ mine deposits to the Utah mill, stoking fears across the Navajo Nation, but especially for communities dotted along those roadways, like Cameron, Tuba City and Kayenta.

Six to eight trucks are expected to transport ore along that route each day. That’s a big concern for Navajo Nation EPA executive director Stephen Etsitty, who shared it “causes me not to sleep at night, and it’s all related to the price of uranium, so I watch that daily.”

Etsitty isn’t the only one keeping tabs.

“Why we’re facing this particular threat is the surging uranium prices,” said Navajo Nation Department of Justice principal attorney Dan Moquin. “I don’t think that there’s been a market as favorable for uranium production since the end of World War II.”

Last year, Energy Fuels marked a record of nearly $100 million in net income. It sold 560,000 pounds of U308 for more than $33 million, or nearly $60 per pound.

Although Pinyon Plain has drawn intense scrutiny, in part because of its proximity to the Grand Canyon, the company has other active mines, including the La Sal and Pandora uranium ore deposits in Utah.

Energy Fuels expects production at these mines to be fully ramped up sometime this year, producing up to 1.4 million pounds at an annual run-rate. Eventually, the company is aiming to expand U308 production with an annual run-rate yielding up to 5 million pounds “in light of the current strength in the uranium market.”

Last month, the Navajo Nation Department of Justice revealed that it’s exploring its legal options to enact regulations on Energy Fuels ahead of the company’s first trucking haul through the reservation. Moquin has been leading efforts to draft the statutorial language, which may include curfews, inspection stations and even fees.

“If the price of uranium continues to go up, they may decide to change their plans and ship for longer,” Moquin said. “So when those regulations are in place, it’s harder for Energy Fuels to raise capital, sell shares to shareholders.”

This legal development came shortly after Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren and Navajo Nation Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley authored an April letter to President Joe Biden. They urged him to use his executive authority to halt uranium transportation on Navajoland.

Train derailment near Lupton, Arizona
David Yellowhorse via AP
In this photo provided by David Yellowhorse, a freight train carrying fuel derailed and caught fire, Friday, April 26, 2024, east of Lupton, Ariz., near the New Mexico-Arizona state line.

That same month, the BNSF train derailment near the Navajo town of Lupton some 20 miles southwest of Gallup, N.M., reinforced fears of another, more radioactive accident.

“If it can happen to a train, it can happen to a semi or diesel truck,” said Navajo Nation Council Delegate Casey Johnson, vice chair of the Resources and Development Committee.

“There’s a lot of commentary and concern about potential accidents,” Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch said during an online session with Moquin in May. “That’s why we’re looking at ways to try, in the event that we’re not able to prevent the transport, that we’re able to manage it and reduce risk as much as possible.”

“The president and the council have made that very clear to the Biden administration, ‘We want help to prevent these shipments entirely,’” Moquin added. “We’re very concerned about an accident, concerned our first responders and the Navajo Nation are not properly equipped to deal with a uranium-type accident.”

But Navajo Nation Division of Public Safety director Michael Anderson disagrees.

“Certainly we’re going to have our detractors, those individuals who may not necessarily believe in our abilities,” he admitted. “I would say the various departments have the right people, the right equipment, the right response to address emergencies that occur on the Navajo Nation.”

‘I still think it’s a concern’

Emergencies like the spilling of uranium ore. The risk of radiation exposure from physical contact with the ore is relatively low since the mineral is unprocessed, but breathing in dust is still dangerous.

“I still think it’s a concern. It’s something that needs to be at least investigated,” said Jani Ingram, a Diné biochemistry professor at Northern Arizona University. “I’m sure that in the old days they didn’t even put a tarp on the trucks, so maybe there’s a different approach. But things [are] flying around and depositing, so you do have increased concentrations.”

The U.S. Forest Service has been in regular communication with Energy Fuels since that federal agency granted the mining permit for the then-Canyon Mine in 1986.

Tarpaulins will be mandatory on all ore trucks “to prevent loss of material in transit,” according to Kaibab National Forest Supervisor Nicole Branton.

She wrote in a statement to KJZZ News that trucks will be held to the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, by the Federal Motor Carrier Regulations, and its “numerous protection measures.”

Potential effects of ore hauling were already analyzed through an environmental impact statement that preceded mine authorization, which included approval for two haul routes because “they would minimize effects to national forest resources and the general forest environmental setting.”

More than a ton of uranium ore from the Pinyon Plain Mine sits on an ore pad, which is permitted to hold up to 13,000 pounds.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
More than a ton of uranium ore from the Pinyon Plain Mine sits on an ore pad, which is permitted to hold up to 13,000 pounds. 

Branton added that her agency has requested “immediate notification of any accidents involving ore trucks,” should any spillage occur. She also expressed confidence that the company “will take immediate aggressive action” to communicate with the affected state or tribal party and ultimately “clean up any spilled material” within two working days, “unless federal and state agencies deem that such action is prevented by conditions beyond the control of Energy Fuels.”

Meaning, Energy Fuels would alert state public safety and transportation agencies in Arizona or Utah, or “notify appropriate tribal councils and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, if the spill occurs on Indian lands.”

In the event of an accident, Branton also noted that a radiological report would be prepared and contain critical information, including the amount of material spilled, the extent of area affected, measures taken to provide an adequate cleanup, results from a final radiological survey and estimates of any non-occupational exposures.

‘We’re in between a rock and a hard place’

These shipments containing some of the country’s richest uranium should be the last departing from the Grand Canyon area, because future mining has been put on hold by President Joe Biden when he came to Arizona last August to designate a nearly million-acre national monument near Grand Canyon National Park.

“Over the years, hundreds of millions of people have traveled to Grand Canyon, awed, awed by its majesty, but fewer are aware of its full history,” Biden said during that dedication ceremony at the Red Butte Airfield, a few miles south of the Grand Canyon. “From time immemorial, more than a dozen tribal nations have lived, gathered, prayed on these lands, but some 100 years ago, they were forced out.”

President Joe Biden
Al Macias
President Joe Biden speaks before signing a proclamation designating the Baaj Nwaavjo I'Tah Kukveni National Monument at the Red Butte Airfield on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, in Tusayan, Arizona.

“That very act of preserving the Grand Canyon as a national park was used to deny Indigenous people full access to their homelands,” Biden continued, “places where they hunted, gathered, took precious, sacred ancestral sites they fought for decades to be able to return to these lands, to protect these lands from mining and development, to clear them of contamination, to preserve their shared legacy for future generations.”

He used his executive authority and the 1906 Antiquities Act, the first U.S. law to provide general legal protection of cultural and natural resources of historic or scientific interest on public lands, to help tribal communities by honoring federal trust and treaty obligations to “prioritize respect for tribal sovereignty and self-determination.”

Now, that protective action taken by Biden is also under threat.

Arizona Senate President Warren Petersen and House Speaker Ben Toma filed a lawsuit earlier this year to challenge Biden’s designation of the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument.

They argue that the president has exceeded his legal authority.

This lawsuit is part of a larger Arizona political trend, driven by state Republicans, to roll back sweeping public land protections. Both state House and Senate chambers passed a resolution, only with Republican votes, calling upon Congress to repeal the Antiquities Act — sending a clear message to federal lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

While Biden has made it clear that he wanted to halt future uranium mining claims around the Grand Canyon out of concern for cultural and spiritual sites to tribes, Leona Morgan believes he’s going back on his word.

Red Butte is called Wii’l Gdwiisa or “Clenched Fist Mountain” by the Havasupai Tribe.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
Red Butte is called Wii’l Gdwiisa or “Clenched Fist Mountain” by the Havasupai Tribe.

“We’re in between a rock and a hard place,” said Morgan, a Diné co-founder of the Indigenous-led initiative HaulNo!, which is trying to stop Energy Fuels from trucking through the Navajo Nation.

“They’re all pushing what we refer to as nuclear colonialism,” she added. “So this ongoing theft of land, taking our resources and ultimately causing a slow genocide to our people with these long-lived health effects.”

As the U.S. weans off Russian uranium, Biden has been embracing the domestic nuclear business. Nuclear energy, which is fueled by uranium, provided nearly half of the nation’s carbon-free electricity last year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Last year, at the U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP28, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, member countries pledged to triple global nuclear energy capacity by 2050.

“Take nuclear power, the biggest source of clean energy,” said Biden, speaking at an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers conference in April. “It employs over 60,000 workers, including many of you. The key to meeting the goal of a 100 percent clean power grid by 2035 depends a lot on it.”

“That’s why we're keeping existing plants open, restarting shuttered plants, and building America's first new nuclear plants in decades,” he added. “I know we’re going to look back on this 20 years from now and be talking about what a revolutionary period this was for the country.”

For decades, the neighboring Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has protested White Mesa Mill and its close proximity to Bears Ears National Monument. That monument was authorized by then-President Barack Obama, and only recently restored by Biden after being downsized by Obama’s predecessor, Donald Trump.

The shadow of Bears Ears National Monument looms in the distance over White Mesa Mill in San Juan County, Utah.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
The shadow of Bears Ears National Monument looms in the distance over White Mesa Mill in San Juan County, Utah.

But uranium-processing facilities like the White Mesa Mill in Utah are part of Biden’s clean energy agenda. Navajos make up about half of the White Mesa Mill’s 75 employees, coming from surrounding communities like Blanding, Bluff, Aneth, Monticello and Montezuma Creek.

“The nature of the uranium market is kind of volatile, as far as ups and downs. We’re hiring right now,” said Snyder, a longtime Blanding resident. “That number is increasing weekly, because we’re staffing up to be able to do the uranium production runs that we’re planning to do.”

Both in the short term and long term.

‘This is our life, not just a 28-month project’

As Energy Fuels continues extracting and readying to haul ore from Arizona to Utah, the company has been eyeing deposits across the Colorado Plateau and Four Corners.

Roca Honda is one of them. It’s in New Mexico at Mount Taylor within the Cibola National Forest. This is one of the Four Sacred Mountains to Navajos.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe community of White Mesa is home to some 350 or so residents that live a few miles down the road from White Mesa Mill.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe community of White Mesa is home to some 350 or so residents that live a few miles down the road from White Mesa Mill.

Moore of Energy Fuels has told KJZZ News that the company owns this deposit. Permitting isn’t finalized, but Energy Fuels anticipates production beginning within the next decade.

The company has estimated that Roca Honda can yield up to 2.7 million pounds of annual uranium production spanning a nine-year mine life. Meanwhile, Pinyon Plain is supposed to be operational for at least 28 months.

“This is our life, not just a 28-month project that we can just deal with and then look the other way when it’s over,” said Morgan of HaulNo!. “Roca Honda being on Mount Taylor, that’s a huge threat to us. What happens when we desecrate these sacred places beyond repair? This is something we don’t want to know.”

The additional mining that could begin at Roca Honda is intensifying worry on the Navajo Nation.

“This would be a horror story, in terms of … 50 big trucks per day is bad enough, no matter what they’re hauling,” said Moquin of the Navajo Nation DOJ. “But when you’re hauling uranium ore through the Navajo Nation, this is very concerning, disconcerting to us.”

An illustrative map lays out the 300-mile haul route from Pinyon Plain Mine to the White Mesa Mill.
HaulNo!
An illustrative map lays out the 300-mile haul route from Pinyon Plain Mine to the White Mesa Mill.

While Energy Fuels also possesses deposits in Wyoming and Utah, the company owns at least five other ones in northern Arizona. Some even reside within Biden’s national monument.

“If uranium production ramps up, this mill is going to be really busy,” said Morgan. “We’re going to be dealing with a lot more than just one transport route.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify that although the Navajo Nation banned the transport of uranium through the Radioactive and Related Substances Equipment, Vehicles, Persons and Materials Transportation Act, the federal government maintains jurisdiction over federal highways, so the transportation of uranium is allowed on U.S. 89 and U.S. 160 through the Navajo Nation, and is regulated by agencies such as the U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.
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