Keeping uranium out of the Grand Canyon

 

Are 21- year-old documents adequate to approve reopening a uranium mine about 15 miles north of the Grand Canyon? The Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Grand Canyon Trust say no, and they're suing the Bureau of Land Management for giving the go-ahead, claiming the agency is violating multiple federal laws by using the decades-old environmental assessment to approve the uranium mine.

The Arizona I Mine has changed ownership three times since it was permitted. It is now owned by the Canadian Denison Mines Corporation, which plans to begin mining there in the first quarter of 2010. The company proposes to extract 67,000 tons of ore, enough to produce about 900,000 pounds of yellowcake, from a 1,300-foot mine shaft that parallels an underground formation known as a breccia pipe -- a collapsed cavern filled with sediments and uranium ore.

"The breccia pipe mines are some of the highest grade mines in the United States," Denison CEO Ron Hochstein told the Arizona Daily Sun.

Hochstein told the Canwest News Service that the idea that the mine threatens the Grand Canyon ecosystem can't be justified "by any stretch of the imagination'' because of the site's distance from the park and planned environmental protection measures.

The 1988 documents do not include the southwestern willow flycatcher and four kinds of fish - all native to the Colorado River - that have since been added to the U.S. endangered species list. The conservation groups also claim the mine poses a risk to the seeps and springs at the Grand Canyon.

"If there's the potential for the mine to deplete or contaminate aquifers that discharge into the canyon, that's not a risk worth taking," said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaign director for the Center for Biological Diversity. "... Neither the mining company nor the BLM can guarantee that aquifer depletion or pollution won't happen."

In July the Department of the Interior barred new mining claims on about 1 million acres of federal land around the Grand Canyon for three years. There are as many as 10,000 existing mining claims on BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands near the Grand Canyon. Some 1,100 uranium mining claims are within five miles of the Grand Canyon National Park.