BLANDING — A new government study has found radioactive contamination just off-site from a controversial uranium mill. But it may not be serious enough to bolster the arguments of the plant's critics.
White Mesa is the nation's only active uranium mill and is currently undergoing relicensing by the state. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe asked for an independent federal study, apparently because they didn't trust the company or state regulators.
The closest homes are more than a mile away, and those neighbors showed only a mild concern about the mill. "Yeah, it's a concern," Preston Hawkins said, "but it ain't a big worry."
There's no cause for undue alarm, said David Naftz with the U.S. Geological Survey, because there are no people or drinking water sources near the area.
The Ute Tribe has battled the plant for years, insisting it poses a serious health threat on the reservation three miles away. In the latest study, federal scientists sampled dirt, sagebrush and springs. They found some radioactive hits just outside the plant boundary, the chemical fingerprints of uranium ore.
"And all of those fingerprints were high," Naftz said. He says it's probably windblown dust from trucks or the plant site itself.
"It looks like it's coming from uncovered ore storage pads, where they store the ore before it's processed at the mill site," he said.
If some of that contamination came from uncovered trucks, then that part of the problem has be resolved.
“In fact, BLM and the Utah Department of Transportation actually issued a memorandum about three years ago requiring these ore trucks to transport their materials covered,” Naftz said.
But the contamination is mild and reaches, at most, a third of a mile from the site and preventing more contamination shouldn't be too hard, according to Naftz.
"I think with a few simple steps the plant can remediate any contamination that we found," he said.
Naftz said covering the pads, or a more cost-effective remediation might be to install sprinkler systems to wet it down.
The federal scientists recommended drilling more monitoring wells as an early warning system in case there is groundwater contamination. The report also recommended periodic monitoring in areas where the study turned up evidence of off-site migration. It also recommended sampling of sagebrush by the company every three years.
Company officials would not comment on the study. It is not known if they agree with its conclusions or whether they plan to do anything about it. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe also refused to comment.
The Utes contend that leaks in the mill's disposal cells are a health threat. They point to previous studies showing nitrate and chloroform in groundwater. State regulators say that came from an old laboratory drain system, not disposal cells, and they believe there is no ongoing leak.
The new study sheds little new light on the controversy. One spring did show elevated radiation, but scientists believe that resulted from windblown dust, not leaks. Still, the study was limited.
"The objective of this study was not to do any kind of health implication," Naftz said. "It was just to see if we found evidence of off-site migration. But, if that was a populated area, that could potentially be of concern."
Meanwhile, state regulators say they expect to renew the plant’s license within the next few weeks.
Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc