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Utah mill fighting to get tailings

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Owners of the White Mesa uranium mill have a message for state environmental regulators wanting to stop shipments of uranium mill tailings from Tonawanda, N.Y., to their mill near Blanding: Bug out of their business.

Earl E. Hoellen, president of International Uranium Corporation, has fired off an 11-page letter to Utah Department of Environmental Quality Executive Director Dianne Nielson, disputing DEQ's recent statements to the Deseret News and promising to "vigorously oppose any attempts to impose improper or unfounded regulatory criteria."The letter comes after state regulators openly questioned the intentions of International Uranium in pursuing a contract to recycle 25,000 tons of uranium mill tailings left over from the famous Manhatten Project in the 1940s.

The state maintains the mill tailings do not contain enough uranium to make reprocessing economically viable, and that the plan to reprocess the tailings is nothing more than waste disposal in disguise - something the mill is not licensed to do.

But International Uranium maintains that reprocessing to recover the 0.05 percent of uranium still in the tailings is not only economically viable, but it is much more economically friendly than simply disposing of the radioactive wastes in the ground - something done at Envirocare, the only Utah waste disposal facility licensed to accept radioactive mill tailings.

In fact, Hoellen says the state's opposition to the International Uranium plan smacks of regulatory favoritism.

"It could appear that the DEQ is concerned about protecting the economic and monopolistic position of Envirocare, and this we assume you would find very disturbing. We certainly do," Hoellen wrote to Nielson.

Hoellen also blasted state regulators quoted in media accounts for inaccurate statements that "could have the effect of harming one Utah business for the benefit of another Utah business, not to mention unnecessarily raising health and safety concerns in the minds of the public, particularly when quite the contrary is true."

Hoellen emphasized that the White Mesa mill is licensed and regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which imposes tougher environmental standards than those imposed by the state or federal government on waste facilities such as Envirocare.

About 60,000 tons of uranium mill tailings similar to those from Tonawanda are destined for disposal at Envirocare, Hoellen said. The difference is the materials will not be recycled and the radioactivity of the materials will not be reduced as it would be through reprocessing.

"The fact that Envirocare may dispose of as waste what International Uranium can process as ore for the recovery of valuable uranium does not justify state intervention to benefit Envirocare," Hoellen wrote.

The 25,000 tons of mill tailings from the Ashland 2 site near Tonawanda are believed to contain about 25,000 pounds of uranium, enough to provide nuclear-generated electrical power to a city of 40,000 or 50,000 people for one year.

This valuable uranium would be wasted if the Ashland materials were merely dumped directly into a low-level radioactive waste disposal facility, Hoellen said. "As a society, we cannot afford to waste these types of resources."

The NRC, which regulates uranium mills, has agreed with International Uranium that the mill tailings do contain economical amounts of uranium.

Consequently, "it is not within the jurisdiction of the state, nor does the DEQ have the expertise, to superimpose its own business judgment on the business judgment of a commercial enterprise such as International Uranium," Hoellen wrote.

State regulators stand by their comments made last week, citing serious concerns the White Mesa mill could become a dumping ground for radioactive mill tailings without state regulatory oversight.