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Navajo politicians are calling on Biden to stop the company from shipping uranium from Arizona to Utah

As uranium production increases in the Four Corners area, Navajo Nation politicians fear that transporting ore through the reservation could endanger residents.

Energy Fuels, one of the country's largest uranium producers, will begin transporting uranium ore from its Arizona mine near the Grand Canyon to White Mesa Mill in southern Utah.

Earlier this week, Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren signed a resolution calling on President Joe Biden to use his executive authority to stop the company from transporting ore across the reservation, citing health and safety concerns Environmental concerns.

“Our Navajo people, land and water are very valuable to us, and we remain steadfast in our stance against uranium,” Nygren said in a news release. “This resolution is a direct result of the collaboration of our legislative and executive branches of government. Together, we are sending a strong message to Washington DC to stop uranium exposure of the Navajo.”

The resolution was signed by Crystalyne Curley, spokesperson for the Navajo Nation, and Casey Allen Johnson, vice chair of the Committee on Resources and Development.

The uranium ore has “no place in sharing these roads with school buses full of our children and the many communities that are at risk,” Curley said in a news release.

“Transportation of a radioactive substance poses environmental problems and direct health risks to the Navajo people, clean water and livestock. The transportation routes for the uranium extend for many miles within the Navajo Nation,” the press release states.

A 2012 Navajo Nation law prohibits the transportation of uranium within the reservation. But according to the tribal government, the law does not apply to state highways.

So Energy Fuels is not violating Navajo law by using State Route 160, which runs through the heart of the reservation and through the Four Corners area – and State Route 89, which runs past the western part of the reservation to Page, Arizona, near the Glen Leads Canyon Dam.

Navajo National Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley (left), President Buu Nygren (center) and Delegate Casey Allen Johnson (right) hold a resolution signed April 29, 2024, calling on President Joe Biden to provide transportation of uranium ore through the reserve. (Source: Navajo Nation)

Reply from Energy Fuels

Curtis Moore, senior vice president of marketing and corporate development for Energy Fuels, said transporting uranium ore is “far less dangerous” than other materials routinely transported on state highways, such as gasoline, propane, chemicals and hazardous waste.

“We deeply respect President Buu Van Nygren for his efforts to protect the Navajo Nation and its lands, waters and people. However, the transportation of uranium ore does not jeopardize these values ​​in the slightest,” said Moore. “We want to assure the Navajo Nation that Energy Fuels takes transportation very seriously and that we meet or exceed all applicable U.S. Department of Transportation laws and regulations regarding the transportation of uranium ore.”

Between 2007 and 2015, Energy Fuels transported around 300,000 tonnes of uranium ore on the same roads – the company says there were no incidents, spills or anything similar “additional radiation exposure to residents along the route” during this period. The company said it will notify the Navajo government when trucking begins.

“We stand ready to engage with the Navajo Nation and other communities to address their concerns and seek mutually beneficial solutions,” Moore said, telling Utah News Dispatch that the ore being transported was in the These are essentially rock fragments that would not be buried if they were buried and seeped into the groundwater.

“In the unlikely event of an accident or other event where ore spills, cleanup is relatively easy and we will clean it up completely,” he said.

The Navajo Nation's decision follows a train derailment near the Arizona-New Mexico border on the reservation. According to the Navajo government, several train cars were carrying flammable materials, which led to a fire, and authorities issued an evacuation order within two miles of the incident.

“We experienced a train derailment just a few days ago that affected many of our tribal members,” said Johnson of the Resources and Development Committee. “If it can happen to a train, it can also happen to a tractor-trailer or diesel truck carrying these materials. Protecting our people is our inherent right. The transport of uranium through our country fundamentally questions our sovereignty. We should not be forced to compromise our sovereignty.”

Uranium mining returns to Utah, Arizona

Uranium mining in Utah resumed earlier this year after a nearly decade-long hiatus, fueled by Congress passes a ban about Russian uranium imports during the invasion of Ukraine.

In response to the focus on domestic production Energy Fuels began mining uranium at three sites, two in Utah and one in Arizona.

Moore said the Utah company is rehabilitating two existing mines near Moab, off State Route 46 near the town of La Sal.

The company operates the White Mesa Mill, The country's only operating uranium mill is located about 85 miles south of Moab between the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation and Bears Ears National Monument.

At White Mesa, the uranium ore extracted from the mines is processed into a sand-like substance, placed in a steel barrel and shipped to a facility in Illinois. There the uranium is enriched and further processed to meet the specifications for certain nuclear power plants.

The White Mesa Mill has a controversial history, and many Ute Mountain Ute tribal officials strongly opposed its operation. Originally built in the late 1970s to process uranium ore, the mill evolved into a radioactive recycling center, receiving waste from the United States and around the world.

“It's quite disturbing to people who have lived here for thousands of years when a company says, 'Oh yeah, we'll take your uranium waste, you can pay us well for it, and we'll dump it here in the ground.' forever,” said Scott Clow, environmental program director for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, in an interview earlier this year.

“One of the things that we've been concerned about at the factory for a long time is what information is publicly available and what the reality is – whether there are compromises on safety, public health and the environment,” Clow said.

Every year, members of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe protest. Senior tribal officials have repeatedly called for the mill to be closed. A 2021 Tribal Council resolution stated, “The operations of the White Mesa Mill have had a serious impact on the health of the residents of White Mesa and should be discontinued entirely.”

“The wind comes down from the mountains and blows across the mill site toward the community, and that brings with it some pretty foul smells,” Clow said. “We have hundreds of acres of trash out there with this wind blowing over them. It’s just constant.”

As production increases in White Mesa, Clow said the tribe will improve air quality and groundwater monitoring in the community to determine if there are any negative impacts.

“More uranium production will mean more waste and a greater likelihood of further contamination of groundwater,” he said.

Anna Harden

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