Energy Fuels hired big guns to lobby for downsizing of Bears Ears
True motives in last week’s radical cuts to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante are starting to glow.
Last Fri., Dec. 8, The Washington Post reported that lobbyists for Energy Fuels Corp., which owns the White Mesa Mill and nearby Daneros uranium mine south of Blanding, launched a “concerted lobbying campaign” to scale back Bears Ears to gain easier access to uranium deposits.
According to documents obtained by the Post, the Lakewood-based Energy Fuels, which is owned by Canadian uranium giant Cameco, paid law firm Faegre Baker Daniels $30,000 to lobby on its behalf. The team of lobbyists was led by none other than Andrew Wheeler, Trump’s pick for the No. 2 spot at the Environmental Protection Agency. Also lobbying was Mary Bono, former California Republican Congresswoman and wife of the late Sonny Bono.
White Mesa, the country’s only uranium processing mill, sat directly outside the boundaries of the original Bears Ears. The documents show that Energy Fuels urged the Trump administration to limit the monument to the smallest size needed to protect key archeological sites while allowing access to the radioactive ore.
The revelation is an about face from what Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters last week. “This is not about energy,” Zinke said following Trump’s Dec. 4 announcement that he was cutting Bears Ears by more than 1.1 million acres, or 85 percent. “There is no mine within Bears Ears.”
Trump’s also halved Grand Staircase-Escalante, which has significant coal deposits. But watchdogs aren’t buying the denials.
“President Trump’s unprecedented and illegal attack on Bears Ears is just another in a long list of giveaways to special interests,” the Center for Western Priorities’ Greg Zimmerman said in a statement. “A toxic history of failed uranium projects litters the Southwest, especially on tribal lands. That President Trump and Secretary Zinke have the audacity to sell out Bears Ears, and its thousands of unique archeological sites to a uranium extraction company is beyond the pale.”
In a May 2017 letter to the Interior Department urging a reduction in Bears Ears, Energy Fuels wrote there are many “known uranium and vanadium deposits located within the newly created (monument).” In addition, according to the Post, Energy Fuels’ Vice President William Paul Goranson joined Wheeler and Bono to discuss Bears Ears in a July 17 meeting with top Zinke advisers.
Built in 1978, White Mesa is the only licensed and operating uranium mill in the United States, with a capacity of 8 million pounds of uranium per year. In addition to processing raw ore, the mill also processes and stores radioactive waste from sites across North America.
Cameco came under fire recently when radioactive sludge from one of its mines in Wyoming spilled on Utah Highway 191 en route to White Mesa. The company escaped fine and civil penalties in lieu of a plan to correct its shipping practices.
As of Sept. 30, the company had $32.7 million of working capital and approximately 470,000 pounds of uranium concentrate inventory, according to its third quarter report. The company realized a total gross profit margin of 35 percent during Q3-2017.
But all is not as rosy as it seems. Last month, Cameco announced it was “suspending” its uranium mill and mine operations in northern Saskatchewan. As of Tuesday, uranium was trading at $25/pound after a high of about $175/pound in 2007.
Despite this, Energy Fuels’ CEO Stephen P. Antony remains optimistic. “Energy Fuels enjoys a number of potential revenue generating opportunities, along with a supportive Administration in Washington D.C.,” he wrote in the quarterly report.
Meanwhile, Utah lawmakers introduced two bills last week that would essentially ratify Trump’s actions.
Last week, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, introduced H.R. 4558, the “Grand Staircase Escalante Enhancement Act.” The bill would create three new, smaller monuments out of the former monument: Escalante Canyons, Kaiparowits and Grand Staircase. The bill also creates the so-called “Escalante Canyons National Park and Preserve.” Although these monuments match Trump’s 48 percent reduction of the original monument, the language basically nullifies his proclamation in favor of putting management in the hands of local officials in Kane and Garfield counties.
A similar bill was also introduced last week by Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, H.R. 4532, which would create two smaller monuments out of the former Bears Ears: Shash Jaa and Indian Creek. The bill would ratify the new boundaries per Trump’s proclamation, at 142,337 acres and 86,447 acres, respectively.
Like the Escalante bill, Curtis’ bill hands over management to local officials and tribal representatives picked by the Utah Legislature. It excludes three of the five tribes that advocated for Bears Ears protection.
All of the new designations prioritize recreation, hunting and grazing and reopen lands to mineral leasing. The bill also includes handing the Hole in the Rock Road to the State of Utah. Both moves worry conservationists.
“This bill is a brazen handout to the extremist voices who wish to eliminate federal control of public lands,” Scott Groene, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, said. “It is clear the remnants would become playgrounds for destructive recreation, poor lands management and dirty energy. The bill, with its throw away National Park designation, is a bait and switch. No one should bite.”
The choice of the name “Shash Jaa” (“Bears Ears” in Navajo) has also stirred controversy. Although Zinke told the Salt Lake Tribune last week that he consulted with Navajo “that live in Utah and they asked for it,” Navajo leaders say not only is the claim untrue, but the name is culturally insensitive.
Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch, who is leading the multi-tribe lawsuit against the downsizing, told the Tribune that Zinke did not consult her tribe about any aspect of the proclamation or renaming. Nor did Interior contact Utah Dine Bikeyah, the grass-roots Navajo group involved with the Bears Ears proposal.
“The tribes have all gotten together and ... chosen a name that works for everybody. It’s collaborative and it’s in English,” Executive Director Gavin Noyes said. “Even though every single tribe has a name for Bears Ears in their own language, the selection of the Navajo name tramples the Native American true history of the place.”
Navajo, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, Zuni and Hopi tribes all signed on and petitioned for the monument designation last year.