Letter from the Colorado Plateau — From the October 2017 issue

States of Decay

A journey through America’s nuclear heartland

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At one time, there were twenty-eight operational mills like Tuba City’s around the country, refining raw uranium ore into yellowcake. Today there is one. The moribund heart of the uranium boom beats in White Mesa, Utah, an unincorporated town of about three hundred Ute Mountain Utes north of the San Juan River. Driving through White Mesa, I passed weatherworn trailers, pickup trucks on concrete masonry units, and dilapidated shotgun houses whose driveways showcased pristine A.T.V.’s. A few miles outside town, America’s last conventional uranium mill was just visible from the highway.

When the mill is processing ore, as it was during my visit, it operates twenty-four hours a day, and a sour odor wafts through the downwind trailer parks. At other times, the mill processes what is known as alternate feed, i.e., waste from other processing facilities, Manhattan Project sites, and Superfund cleanups. This is good stopgap business for the mill, and a handy way for other companies to pass on their unwanted waste. Mill workers describe it as a kind of recycling: recovering natural uranium from unconventional sources. Critics say the mill is acting as an ad hoc dump for types of toxic waste it was not designed to manage.

Thelma Whiskers at her home, White Mesa, Utah

I went to a tribal hearing about the mill at the White Mesa Community Center, where a sign posted outside warned me that I would be ejected if my breath smelled of alcohol. Inside, about fifty locals ate burgers and hot dogs at picnic tables that had been set up in a gym. Half were White Mesa locals, which is to say, members of the Ute tribe sponsoring the event; the other half were Anglo hippies who’d retired to the artists’ enclave next door in Bluff. (“We chose Bluff to avoid radioactivity,” a petroglyph enthusiast from Denver told me.) When an organizer polled the audience, only the two men next to me, both in half-zips and denim, identified themselves as local to Blanding, the blue-collar town where many of the mill’s employees live.

The meeting lasted three hours. The tribe’s environmental director described a host of problems they’d found with the mill: that the vinyl linings of its impoundments were thin, outdated, and prone to leaking; that the groundwater in the shallow aquifer beneath the mill contained plumes of nitrates and other “smoking guns” of uranium waste; that incoming trucks had more than once spilled radioactive waste onto the highway bisecting the town; that the mill had failed to prepare sufficient funds for reclamation, virtually guaranteeing that it would become a Superfund site.1 Appended to this grim account were suggestions for regulation and voluntary reform.

1 Energy Fuels, the mill’s owner since 2012, has a reclamation bond in place for $22 million, which the State of Utah has found adequate. But costs could easily exceed $125 million, according to an independent report the tribe commissioned in 2011.

David Yearicks, a White Mesa handyman, had had enough. He stood up. “So basically you’re saying the mill is going to continue to operate and we’re going to have to deal with the contamination? Is that what you’re saying?”

Silence filled the gym. “I don’t know,” the director said. “That’s where we’re at right now.”

“So what’s going to happen? Nothing?”

Children at a skate park, Tuba City, Arizona

One by one, others stood to speak. They described foul-smelling tap water and suspicious deaths of wild animals. They wanted closure, not reform. “I’ve been fighting the White Mesa mill for years, years, years,” said Thelma Whiskers, a tribal elder. Her fellow activists were old or dead. She recalled thinking a few years ago that the mill had closed for good, only to see smoke rising from its silhouette a few months later. Now she began banging on the bleachers in frustration, emphasizing every other word. “Why can’t they listen to us people here that live on this Ute reservation? My people are sick! And they won’t listen!” After the meeting, David told me that he thought that the whole town should probably relocate. You just can’t fight these corporations, he said. There’s too much money and power involved.

During a lull between speakers, the Blanding man next to me had introduced himself. His name was Logan Shumway, he said, and his family had settled Utah with the Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers. He handed me a business card identifying him as an Energy Fuels engineer. “What you heard tonight is pretty crazy,” he whispered. “If you want to get the real story, give me a call.”

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lives in Berlin. His work on this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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