American Indians and others fighting a plan to haul radioactive tailings from a Monticello Superfund site to a uranium mill south of Blanding have lost a critical round.
A local citizens advisory committee formed by the U.S. Department of Energy voted 10-9 Tuesday in favor of the haul.The advisory committee's vote has been forwarded to Energy Secretary Thomas Grumbly, who will decide by Tuesday, Dec. 20, whether to leave 2.6 million cubic yards of uranium tailings in Monticello or truck them to the Energy Fuels Nuclear Inc.'s uranium mill, said DOE spokesman Joel Berwick.
That mill is south of Blanding and just north of the White Mesa Ute Tribe's reservation. Some of the property around the mill has been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the disposal of low-level radioactive waste, such as the tailings left behind by a uranium mill that used to operate in Monticello.
Tribal leaders, as well as most Indians throughout southeastern Utah, are opposed to the tailings' coming to Energy Fuels facility because they fear it will contaminate groundwater and defame the sacred nature of the land around the mill. The Utes also fear that increased truck traffic - about 320 60-mile round trips per day - will lead to numerous accidents along U.S. 191.
Many local and county officials, however, support the haul, arguing it will bring much-needed jobs and income to Monticello and Blanding.
The issue has the town sharply divided, as indicated by Tuesday's close vote.
"That's not much of a mandate," said Douglas Sarno, a facilitator assigned by the DOE to help county residents arrive at a consensus.
Though Berwick said Grumbly will likely follow the recommendation of the citizens committee, Sarno said Grumbly may take into account the closeness of the vote.
If Grumbly goes along with the haul, the DOE will have to amend the original environmental impact statement, which suggested the tailings stay in Monticello. The amendment would require additional public hearings along with approval by the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
A decision to move the tailings to Monticello will also be met with continuing opposition by Indian groups. Four Indian representatives on the citizens advisory board wrote to Grumbly on Wednesday, saying that "if federal and state agencies refuse to listen to the mandate of the people, we will be forced to carry the issue before the federal courts."