Wheeler’s EPA: Is a Foreign Uranium Company On Verge of Getting More Wishes Granted?

After successfully lobbying the administration to gut Bears Ears protections for his former client, what will Acting EPA Administrator Wheeler do next?

Perhaps because he is afraid of getting booted like his scandal-plagued predecessor, DC lobbyist-turned-Acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler recently promised to put a premium on transparency at the EPA now that he has the keys. In order to help him meet that premium, Western Values Project looked back at some of Wheeler’s past lobbying efforts and the former energy clients he represented that are now in a position to benefit from his expanded role as acting administrator.

According to the Trump administration’s ethics order, Executive Branch appointees need to wait two years before working on matters affecting former clients. This could prove difficult for Acting Administrator Wheeler considering his extensive resume lobbying the EPA and other federal agencies on behalf of energy companies. Using his insider status as a member of the presidential transition team, Wheeler already successfully lobbied the Trump administration and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to act on a recommendation to illegally shrink the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument on behalf of Canadian uranium company Energy Fuels Inc (EFI).

If Acting Administrator Wheeler helped usher in the largest roll back of federal lands protection in American history in order to benefit a foreign corporation, the question stands: Can we trust him to protect Americans and our iconic landscapes from harmful mining practices by foreign mining companies, or will he bend to the will of special interests at our expense?

The lowdown on Acting Administrator Wheeler and his former foreign uranium mining client, Energy Fuels Inc. (EFI):

Andrew Wheeler lobbied to reduce the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument on behalf EFI. EFI has substantial business interests in the area, and has unfounded concerns that Bears Ears would hurt its business.  

After Trump was elected, Energy Fuels hired Andrew Wheeler, who was the Trump Campaign’s “energy advisor,” as its lobbyist. In that role, Wheeler and EFI “lobbied extensively” to reduce Bears Ears National Monument, which EFI believed could “significantly adversely impact” its business.

EFI owns an inactive uranium mine bordering the monument’s western edge, and plans to truck uranium ore through the monument to its uranium processing mill near the monument’s eastern edge once the price of uranium is high enough for that process to become profitable.

Energy Fuels owns the White Mesa uranium mill, which processes uranium near Bears Ears National Monument. The company recently got approval to enlarge its nearby Daneros Mine to more than 10 times its current size, even though the current low price of uranium is keeping the mine inactive.

Energy Fuels opposes Bears Ears National Monument because of unfounded concerns that the monument may “adversely impact” its business.

Half of the material processed at Energy Fuels’ White Mesa Mill is not mined uranium ore, but “alternative feed materials,” which include waste material that the company obtains from superfund sites.

The White Mesa Mill obtained license amendments that allowed it to process waste from several Superfund sites, including the Midnite Mine in Washington State and “contaminated soil” from a Superfund site in Maywood, New Jersey.

Andrew Wheeler appears to have been illegally lobbying for EFI even after the period that his official lobbying registration with the company ended.

Andrew Wheeler was registered as a lobbyist for Energy Fuels Resources only during the first and second quarters of 2017. But records obtained from the Trump administration by the New York Times and Western Values Project show that he lobbied for Energy Fuels Resources before the Department of Interior during July 2017 – a period during which he was not registered as a lobbyist for the company nor did the company report that it had lobbied Interior. On July 17, 2017, Wheeler represented Energy Fuels Resources in a meeting with DOI officials “to discuss the Bears Ears National Monument.”

Interior meeting with EFI lobbyist Wheeler

Source: U.S. Department of the Interior

EFI is currently lobbying EPA for contracts.

EFI’s CEO, Mark Chalmers, told investors in January 2018 that EFI was lobbying the EPA “very heavily” to win contracts to clean up abandoned uranium mines. The company is trying to get EPA contracts to help clean up depleted uranium mines on lands in the Four Corners area, including property owned by the Navajo Nation where there are more than 500 abandoned mines.

At EPA, Wheeler will have some regulatory authority over EFI, his former client.

EPA has regulatory authority over the uranium industry, including setting the standards for radon emissions from underground uranium mines like the ones EFI owns. EPA regulates radionuclides and radon emissions from the disposal of uranium mill tailings. EPA permits are required for some uranium mines on public lands, like EFI’s Canyon Mine.

EFI has called on the Trump administration to weaken EPA standards for uranium mining.

In a July 2017 letter, EFI’s vice president of ISR Operations wrote a letter to EPA complaining that its proposed rule to set standards on for uranium and thorium mill tailings was “clumsy” and “weak,” and urged EPA to “immediately withdraw” the proposed rule. This comment was made on a 2017 rule that the Trump EPA proposed to weaken standards proposed by an Obama-era proposed rule.

EFI wants to mine for uranium next to the Grand Canyon.

EFI appears to be trying to reverse a 20-year ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon announced in January 2012. According to the Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation group, EFI owns about 12% of active mining claims in the area of this ban. Further, enCore Energy Corp., of which Energy Fuels is the largest shareholder, recently bought 73% of the active claims in the area of the ban. The National Mining Association, a trade association of which EFI is a member, has appealed its challenge to the constitutionality of this mining ban to the US Supreme Court. Independent of this case, the Trump administration began a review of the mining ban in October 2017, when the US Forest Service included the ban in a list of policies that purportedly inhibit US energy independence.

At the same time, EFI is trying to get the Trump administration to put quotas on foreign uranium imports to artificially create a market for domestic uranium. On January 16, 2018, Energy Fuels Resources and another uranium producer petitioned the Department of Commerce for trade barriers to shield US uranium producers from foreign competition. The petition asks that the Department of Commerce establish a quota on uranium imports that reserves at least 25% of the US uranium market for domestic producers. The petition also asks that the Department of Commerce require all US government agencies to satisfy their uranium needs from domestic sources. Such trade barriers may make Energy Fuels Resources’ mining claims near the Grand Canyon economically viable. Much of Energy Fuels Resources’ current production capacity is idle because of a glut in global uranium markets that has depressed prices.

By trying to relax regulations around uranium mining, EFI could expose people, and Native American communities in particular, to the harmful effects of uranium.

Historically, uranium mining in and near the Navajo reservation has had devastating health effects. The EPA and other agencies are working to clean up the abandoned mines, but the harm continues. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study seeking to “gauge the impacts of uranium on Navajo families today” found “high levels of uranium” in 27 percent of people studied on the Navajo reservation due to abandoned uranium mines. The study even found “uranium in babies born now.”

If EFI gets its way and lifts the uranium mining ban in the Grand Canyon, uranium ore will be trucked through the reservation to the White Mesa Mill.

EFI, a foreign company, could hurt America’s natural places and harm our public health because it wants to sell its product “anywhere in the world.”

EFI describes itself as “a Canadian Company” in its own SEC filings. The corporation’s website touts itself as a key supplier of uranium to major nuclear utilities worldwide.

EFI vice president Curtis Moore, in 2017, said “we don’t just limit ourselves to sales in the United States. We’ll sell anywhere in the world.” According to its 2017 SEC Form 10K, EFI made sales of $4.4 million outside the US in 2017 compared to US sales of $20.07 million. In 2015, it made $20.98 million worth of sales in South Korea under a contract that has apparently expired.

EFI has historically trucked much of its milled yellowcake uranium from the White Mesa Mill to the Cameco Corporation in Canada, which is a major supplier of uranium to China. In 2010, Cameco signed a major long-term contract to supply the China Nuclear Energy Industry Corporation, a unit of China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), with “23 million pounds of uranium concentrate through 2020.

In addition to his work for EFI, Wheeler lobbied for coal giant Murray Energy, which was at ‘war’ with EPA in the press and courts under the Obama administration and has been celebrating Trump’s stagnant efforts to revive the coal industry. In 2016, Wheeler also lobbied for Xcel Energy, a Minnesota-based utility that owns 9 coal-fired power plants and is fighting EPA rules designed to reduce haze and pollution near national parks and wilderness areas.

Wheeler’s revolving-door history and swampy background lobbying for companies that have been trying to influence the EPA begs the question: Will EFI and other former clients of Wheeler’s have special access to the EPA administrator’s office? Or will Wheeler completely recuse himself from dealing with former clients, as required by the Trump administration’s ethics standards?

If Acting Administrator Wheeler wants to avoid the same fate as his predecessor, he should fully commit to transparency and avoid using his position to do favors for special interests and his former lobbying firm cronies.

Also published on Medium.

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