Grand Canyon Trust Files Lawsuit over Dangerous Uranium Mill Problems

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Grand Canyon Trust today sued Energy Fuels Resources in Utah federal district court over ongoing radon pollution problems at its White Mesa uranium mill near Blanding and White Mesa, Utah. The suit aims to correct ongoing problems at the mill and to ensure resources are available for cleanup and reclamation.

“Radiological pollution is dangerous and uranium mills must comply with laws lessening that danger,” said Anne Mariah Tapp, attorney with Grand Canyon Trust. “We want to eliminate or reduce the harms to public health and the environment resulting from radon emissions.”

White Mesa is the only conventional uranium mill operating today in the U.S. It processes ore from regional uranium mines, including near Grand Canyon. It also receives, processes, and disposes of radioactive waste, or “alternate feed,” from Superfund sites and other locations across the U.S. that are contaminated with radioactive waste.

The suit cites data showing that in 2012 and 2013, radon-222 emissions at the mill exceeded hazardous air pollutant standards. Exposure to radon-222 is linked to cancer, genetic defects, and increases in mortality rates.

It further alleges that, during that same period, mill owners exceeded the legal limit for the number of on-site pits that are filled with uranium wastes known as tailings. Regulations limit the number of tailings impoundments to ensure ongoing remediation and to avoid mill closures causing abandoned impoundments and pollution. For example, the ongoing cost of the federal closure and remediation of the abandoned Atlas uranium mill outside Moab, Utah, is expected to exceed $1 billion — a cost borne by taxpayers.

“We’re concerned that the tailings remediation backlog poses pollution and financial risks to the public, especially if the mill were to close,” said Tapp. “We cannot afford to allow history to repeat itself here. Regulations requiring continuous remediation must be followed.”

Citing poor market conditions, Energy Fuels in December announced that it plans to close the mill in 2014 and potentially reopen it 2015. It also announced that it would shutter its Pinenut Mine, located just north of Grand Canyon and, pursuant to a legal agreement with Grand Canyon Trust, the Havasupai Tribe and others, cease efforts to open its controversial Canyon Mine.

“Communities and taxpayers for decades have shouldered the high environmental, health, and financial costs of radiological pollution in our region,” said Taylor McKinnon, director of energy with Grand Canyon Trust. “It’s one of America’s worst environmental injustices, and it’s imperative that we now fix rather than further that legacy.”

Attorneys Travis Stills of Energy and Conservation Law and Anne Mariah Tapp and Neil Levine of Grand Canyon Trust represent the Grand Canyon Trust.

Download a copy of today’s court-stamped complaint here.

For more information, contact Anne Mariah Tapp, (512) 565-9906

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Cutting the Coal Chain

By Roger Clark

HCN Cover - CopyThe cover of High Country News recently featured the fall of Mohave coal plant’s 400-foot-tall smokestack. Mohave was the first major coal plant in our nation to close in 2005. It shut down due to a court-ordered cleanup of its air pollution, negotiated with the Grand Canyon Trust, combined with the owners’ failure to renew coal and water agreements with the Hopi and Navajo tribal governments.

One of three stories in the special issue on coal’s tenuous grip on the West describes challenges that face the Navajo Nation. “Will future Navajos condemn their forebears for choosing to tether the tribe more tightly to coal, thereby perpetuating a doomed industry’s harm to the people, land and air?” asks senior editor Jonathan Thompson.

Or will they praise pioneering paths to cutting ties to coal? HCN author Emily Guerin writes: “The Grand Canyon Trust, a Flagstaff-based nonprofit, hopes to lessen that dependence — using money from coal. The organization helps administer a $5 million fund donated by the utilities that run the coal-fired Springerville Generating Station in eastern Arizona, as part of a settlement over the plant’s expansion. The money funds renewable energy projects and helps local chapters diversify their economies — something that is difficult in the highly centralized Navajo Nation, where all business development decisions must pass through Window Rock, the seat of the Navajo tribal government. The goal is to foster social entrepreneurship as an alternative to resource extraction, says the Trust’s Tony Skrelunas, former director of the Navajo Nation Economic Development Division, and it begins by encouraging bright young people to return to the reservation after college to start businesses.”

Brett Isaac is one of those entrepreneurs with whom the Trust works. The HCN article continues: “After he was hired by a tribally owned economic development corporation, he convinced its board of directors to get into the solar business. Now he’s the CEO of Shonto Energy LLC, a community-owned business, where he builds off-grid solar systems for Navajos living without electricity, using money from the Springerville settlement.” Our partnership with Shonto also creates new opportunities with the Trust’s Volunteer Program.

Brett Isaacs (HCN photo)

This March, twelve students from Colby College participated in an alternative spring break program organized by Trust volunteer coordinator Andrew Mount and youth engagement coordinator Ana Miller-ter Kuile. They teamed up with Isaac and his crew to install a 1.5kW photovoltaic system at the home of Navajo Mountain resident Karen Begay. Begay’s home is located downwind from the largest coal-fired power plant in the West.

Spring break

The High Country News story concludes: “Coal companies ‘imprisoned our intelligence because they made us think that without that job there’s nothing out here, we wouldn’t survive,’ Isaac says. But that could change ‘if we created the competency out here…we wouldn’t feel so threatened.’”

For more information about Trust related work, please see:
REIF Awards $1.3 Million for AZ Renewable Energy Projects
Navajo elders and others get electricity for first time
Trust assists partnerships for rural solar electrification in Native America
Creating a Navajo Green Economy
Solar project to assist Native American elders
Economic Diversification Drives Native America Program

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Artists on the Land: “Writing out from Kane Ranch” Performance a Hit

House Rock Valley is blue gramma grass and sky in equal parts

House Rock Valley is blue gramma grass and sky in equal parts | Photo: Kate Watters

Spanning lofty heights of the Kaibab Plateau and sweeping vistas of the Marble Platform and Vermilion Cliffs, the Kane Ranch is an area of tremendous ecological importance, significant social value, and unparalleled beauty.

Grand Canyon Trust has been bringing conservation research and stewardship to this spectacular but little-known landscape since 2005.  Now we are bringing art to this storied place.

In late November, the Trust invited four Flagstaff artists–Jean Rukkila, Tony Norris, Darcy Falk, and Shonto Begay–to a creative retreat at Kane Ranch. They brought stories, songs and poetry from the land back to Flagstaff and together created a performance for the Flagstaff Public Library “Stories to Life” program on January 12.

Artist Jean Rukkila, a native Arizonan said that:

Being there reminded me of growing up in the 60’s when the Arizona landscape was not so pinched by highways and shopping malls. There is a profound stillness and the loudest voice is the wind rising and falling. I savor noticing that the end of day has different sounds and colors then the beginning or high noon. It is a real privilege to be in a place where you are a minor voice.

With great local press on the project, more than 200 people attended with overwhelmingly positive feedback.

Trust board member Jim Babbitt provided rich context describing why House Rock Valley, Paria Plateau, and Kaibab Plateau inspire this new chapter of conservation, science, and art.

This is just the beginning of our efforts to cultivate artists as environmental advocates. Kane Ranch is a spectacular venue for cross-pollination between public lands management and conservation science. But artists help convey how these unspoiled places make us feel and why they matter. We will integrate art to create greater momentum for social change on the Colorado Plateau.

There are many opportunities to visit Kane Ranch. Click here to see our volunteer schedule or click here to learn more about a new journalling workshop. Are you an artist? Would you like to use your creative talents to inspire people to protect and restore the Colorado Plateau? Email Kate Watters, or call 928-774-7488.


 

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Citizen Engagement Strengthens Utah Forest Fracking Safeguards

Agreement Strengthens Fracking Safeguards on 1.7 Million Acres of Utah Forest

Boulder Mountain, Utah. Photo: Tim Peterson / Lighthawk

As the Salt Lake Tribune said in a Feb. 18 editorial, “It’s a long, uncertain slog sometimes.”

In forging our agreement with the Forest Service over its 1.7 million acre oil and gas plan, that was certainty true.  All told, it involved months of citizen engagement.

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 12.53.23 PM

But in the end, an uncertain slog was well worth the effort.

Our agreement, which resolves an appeal to a Forest Service oil and gas plan, eliminates vague wording and loopholes that could have spelled trouble for forests, wildlife and people.

The new plan has firm protections for clean air, archaeological sites, and sensitive plants.  It guards against incursions into unroaded backcountry and areas important for wildlife movement.

A good plan has thus been made with diligent citizen engagement. 

It shows that concerned citizens can make real changes to public land management when federal officials embrace their duty to conserve irreplaceable natural and cultural values.

Learn more about Grand Canyon Trust’s work to conserve Utah lands here.

 

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Connecting “Island” Fragments: Not Just for Rainforests

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Oil and gas development makes island fragments in the Utah desert. Photo: Taylor McKinnon

Islands evoke visions of diversity: strange trees, magnificent reptiles, beautiful flowers, resplendent birds. Much of this diversity is made possible by the evolutionary isolation of islands from the competitive pressures of natural selection on the mainland.

But isolation also makes islands vulnerable to threats that can overwhelm an ecosystem, like non-native species. Indeed, introduced snakes, rats, and even mosquitos have decimated biodiversity on many of the world’s islands.

Urban expansion, energy development, industrial forestry, and even livestock grazing can also create islands in mainland habitats. Scientists are finding that these islands can be vulnerable to species loss, and that keeping them connected can reduce that risk.

Dr. Stuart Pimm, “an expert in extinctions,” studies the effects of man-made forest islands on biodiversity.  The screenshot below links to a full interview with Pimm. He says:

From our work… in the Amazon on forest “islands” we know how quickly species are lost from forest fragments of different sizes. These studies quickly tell us that preventing forest fragmentation and reconnecting fragments is going to be a potent means of preventing extinctions.

Next big idea in forest conservation? Connecting forest fragments

Screen Shot: MONGABAY

On the Colorado Plateau, these same principles apply.  Many of the same factors threaten to sever connections between islands of protected land like the Grand Canyon and Grand Staircase, or Canyonlands and Bryce Canyon.

Keeping these places connected is important. More broadly, understanding connectivity helps us gauge the potential impacts to biodiversity from land uses.  It provides “big picture” context for local proposals.

For example, on the Kane and Two Mile Ranches, we’re working with our partners to develop models that inform how landscape change affects connectivity for species like puma, bobcat, pronghorn, and mule deer. 

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Remote cameras that detect wildlife movement aid in the development of habitat connectivity models.

Alongside data on projected climate change, fire, and non-native species invasion, we’ll use that information to assess vulnerability to climate change and develop adaptation strategies accordingly. 

This is applied conservation science at its best; we’ll take a closer look at its particulars in coming weeks.

Stay tuned.


Learn about The Grand Canyon Trust’s work on forest restoration and land conservation at Kane Ranch.

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Headlines from Grand Canyon Trust’s Legal Notice on White Mesa Uranium Mill

On January 29 Grand Canyon Trust put Energy Fuels Resources on notice that we intend to sue them over violations of the Clean Air Act at their White Mesa Mill — the only operating uranium mill in the US.

Our press release was picked up by a number of news outlets, and a few called for interviews.

Group says Utah uranium mill is violating emission limits | The Salt Lake Tribune

Screen Shot: The Salt Lake Tribune 2/2/2014

From the Tribune:

One of the mill’s five impoundments, constructed to permanently hold processed ore, released too much radon last year, according to a formal notice the [T]rust sent the company Wednesday. The letter is giving company executives 60 days’ notice that it will sue in Utah’s federal court to enforce the Clean Air Act.

The [T]rust also contends Energy Fuels is operating too many impoundments at one time and that two exceed the size limit by a few acres.

“If we are going to have milling on the Colorado Plateau, it needs to be in strict compliance with laws to protect environmental and public health,” said Anne Mariah Tapp, the trust’s lawyer.

The Cortez Journal 02/01/2014 | Uranium mill west of Cortez faces possible suit over radon

Screen Shot: The Cortez Journal 2/1/2014

From Cortez Journal:

In an interview, Taylor McKinnon, director of energy for Grand Canyon Trust, said the legacy of reckless uranium mining and milling in the Southwest has hurt the land and the people.

“The region’s radioactive pollution is one of the great environmental injustices in American history,” he said. “Laws are put in place to prevent it from happening again, and the laws are not being followed here.”

Energy Fuels’ response?

The issues raised by this group are either inaccurate, have been addressed, or are being addressed as part of the normal regulatory processes.

We respectfully disagree.


Other news stories on our White Mesa Mill legal notice:

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