A uranium mine is anything but a good neighbor

 

Driving the road between uranium mines on the Grand Canyon’s North Rim recently, I got a taste of what it’s like to live along a truck route for hauling uranium. Unfortunately, it’s a reality that may soon face anyone living between northern Arizona and southern Utah if a uranium mine reopens close to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

The trucks, which lack large and clearly seen markings indicating that their cargo is radioactive, are huge -- the size of dump trucks -- with 25 tons of ore piled high in the beds. The ore is covered by canvas tarps that seem scant protection from high winds or accidents. With only this flimsy covering, the ore travels hundreds of miles on rough Forest Service roads, county roads, highways and interstates, moving from the mines to the White Mesa Uranium Mill in Blanding, Utah.

During a recent trip on the Arizona Strip, it was hard for me or my companions to tell whether the clouds accompanying the trucks ahead of us were blowing debris escaping from the canvas covers, kicked-up dust, or some combination of both. We closed the air vents as more trucks sped past us, all trailing yellow-brown plumes.

No one wants to breathe dust from uranium ore, and for good reason. Uranium's slowly progressing decay chain produces radon-222, a radioactive, odorless, invisible, cancer-causing gas. Radon-222 decays in a sequence of radionuclides that attach to airborne materials --such as the dust blowing from haul trucks. The inhaled particles are carried into the lungs where they can remain for years.

But soon, thousands of us could encounter uranium haul trucks on our daily commutes. Energy Fuels Inc. has decided to mine uranium near the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, and its trucking route will bring uranium ore through the heart of many Southwestern communities.

The route for ore from the Canyon Mine starts about four miles from Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim entrance. The haul trucks then pick up Highway 64 to Williams and I-40 to Flagstaff. They will rumble east past the Flagstaff Mall and exit onto Highway 89 North for a long journey across the Navajo Nation, through Tuba City, Kayenta, and Bluff before reaching the White Mesa Uranium Mill – now the only operating conventional uranium mill in the United States.

The Environmental Protection Agency, however, has found that communities in the vicinity of uranium mines, mills, and processing sites risk higher levels of exposure to radon-222. That exposure is potentially dangerous. Once we inhale radon-222, soluble uranium compounds dissolve and pass into the bloodstream. Highly insoluble uranium compounds can cause chronic radiotoxicity, which is tied to a high incidence of lung cancer.

There’s also the added hazards of accidents on the roads. In 1987, two separate accidents involving haul trucks spilled uranium ore across highways on the Navajo Nation. In 1997, a haul truck jacknifed in Colorado Springs, spreading ore across I-25 and closing the highway.

The uranium industry has left a toxic legacy of contamination across the Colorado Plateau, ranging from the Orphan Mine inside Grand Canyon National Park, to ongoing clean-ups across the Navajo Nation, to the current environmental disaster unfolding at the White Mesa Uranium Mill. So it is hardly an exageration to say that the uranium industry is the kind of neighbor you’d rather not have. It pays no federal royalties for the uranium mined near the Grand Canyon, and it has left taxpayers holding the bag for millions of dollars in reclamation costs.

Now, it has the audacity to reopen a mine on the doorstep of one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, and to truck toxic uranium ore past our schools, hospitals, homes, and businesses. Taking advantage of a loophole in a 2012 ban on all new uranium mines, the Canyon Mine is reopening under a plan of operations and an environmental review that date back to 1986. A lot has changed in the last 29 years, which is why the Havasupai Tribe, the Grand Canyon Trust, and other environmental groups have appealed the mine opening to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Enough is enough. It’s time to protect the Grand Canyon from uranium mining, make the 2012 ban permanent, and ask federal agencies to rethink their approval of existing uranium mines. 

Anne Mariah Tapp is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She directs the Energy Program for the Grand Canyon Trust, and lives in Flagstaff, Arizona. 

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.