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Navajo Nation is concerned about health risks from trucks hauling uranium ore

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we incorrectly say that the Energy Fuels uranium mill in Utah has not processed domestically mined uranium ore in decades. The company says it processed ore from US mines in 2018-2023.]

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

America's only uranium processing plant is preparing to get uranium ore from U.S. mines for the first time in 25 years. The Navajo Nation worries about the health risks. From member station KJZZ, here's Michel Marizco.

MICHEL MARIZCO, BYLINE: Energy Fuels says about a half-dozen trucks a day will soon start hauling uranium ore from the Pinyon Plain Mine, near the Grand Canyon, to its mill about 300 miles away in Utah. The Navajo government opposes the mine and mill. President Buu Nygren is asking the Navajo Council to regulate uranium ore shipments.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUU NYGREN: I asked the honorable Resource & Development Committee to pass uranium transport regulations that Navajo EPA and DOJ will have ready for approval within the next month.

MARIZCO: But the tribe doesn't have jurisdiction over federal highways crossing its reservation. Energy Fuels plans to use at least two. The company's Curtis Moore says it's working with local governments.

CURTIS MOORE: We have agreed to voluntarily provide some government stakeholders with notice, including the Forest Service, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, the Navajo Nation and Coconino County and others.

MARIZCO: Moore said trucks will be marked with radioactive warnings and covered with tarps.

MOORE: Uranium ore is just rock, so it's not explosive. It's not flammable. It doesn't present hazards like hauling fuel, hauling gasoline. That's actually quite a bit more dangerous than uranium ore, so really, people have nothing to be concerned about even in the event of an accident.

MARIZCO: The Sierra Club is concerned ore shipments may create toxic dust and question whether public safety agencies are prepared to deal with an accident. Dr. Frank LoVecchio, the medical director of clinical research at Arizona State University, says it's possible for trucks to transport uranium ore safely.

FRANK LOVECCHIO: Let's say that there's a good seal on the tarp and no dust is coming out. I think that would be safe.

MARIZCO: But, he says...

LOVECCHIO: Let's say that there wasn't a good seal. I mean, I think there's potential you can get ill, and what I mean by that is, I guess, if you're close to it and then you start inhaling it.

MARIZCO: LoVecchio says chronic exposure, such as to people mining the ore, poses the greatest danger. Energy Fuels plans to begin trucking ore across the Navajo reservation this summer.

For NPR News, I'm Michel Marizco in Flagstaff, Ariz.

(SOUNDBITE OF LYMBYC SYSTYM'S "GENERATED BODIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: May 1, 2024 at 9:00 PM PDT
In the audio and web versions of this story, we incorrectly say that the Energy Fuels uranium mill in Utah has not processed domestically mined uranium ore in decades. The company says it processed ore from US mines in 2018-2023.