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Risks remain from uranium mining near the Grand Canyon

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Red Lodge | Feb 22, 2012 06:00 AM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

When the 20-year withdrawal of nearly one million acres of public land from uranium development near the Grand Canyon was finalized last month, reaction was mixed. Conservationists, who’d been warning of contamination of surface and groundwater flowing into the Colorado River from mining activity, mostly exhaled in relief. (Never mind the current GOP effort to reverse the decision) Mining enthusiasts complained of lost opportunities for revenue and employment.

Uranium development peaked here in the 1980s but fell off after demand for the ore dropped. When the price of uranium soared in 2006, and continued its climb the next year, a Bush administration policy fostered thousands of new claims on land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service in the Grand Canyon watershed. Fearing the environmental impact of the bonanza, the Department of the Interior suspended new claims in 2009, pending environmental review.

There are over 5,000 active uranium claims within those one million acres. The withdrawal goes a long way toward protecting the watersheds, seeps and springs, sacred sites and critical wildlife habitat in the area because the only claims that can now be mined would have had to establish “valid existing rights,” before the 2009 moratorium. Yet even with these protections, the mines with existing rights -- the ones allowed to operate despite the moratorium --  may still have a significant negative impact on the Grand Canyon environment

Claims with valid existing rights within the withdrawal can be mined, or re-mined, which is the case here. There are four uranium mines in the withdrawal area, all built in the 1980s and all owned by Denison Mines, a Canadian/Korean mining firm. The Canyon Mine is south of the Grand Canyon in the Kaibab National Forest and the Pinenut, Kanab North and Arizona 1 mines are north of the canyon on the Arizona Strip.

Denison mines in Grand CanyonOf those, only the Arizona 1 is currently operating; Denison reactivated the mine in December 2009. Denison also plans to re-open the Pinenut mine this May, according to a press release the company issued just days after the ink dried on Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s record of decision for the withdrawal. The other three mines -- Pinenut, Canyon and Kanab North have been left essentially in limbo --they were closed in the late 1980s or early 1990s but have never been remediated, supposedly, because they were to be reopened at any time.

The uranium in this area is concentrated in columns, called Breccia Pipes, and the ore is generally one-third of a mile or more beneath the ponderosa and pinyon pine forests. It’s accessed by excavating vertical and horizontal shafts, and the ore and waste rock is then piled up outside the mine until it can be hauled 300 miles to a mill near Blanding, Utah. Once on the surface, the uranium is vulnerable to wind and water, giving it the potential to affect the aquifers in the area.

Conservationists have been told by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality that the agency has no record of contaminant dispersion at any of the un-remediated mine sites in the area. If that’s true, they seemed to have missed a few major studies the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has released recently, in which they compared radioactivity at sites with similar geology, some that had been mined and others that had not been. In mined watersheds they found concentrations of uranium, and other undesirable substances, in soil and water far above the EPA standards. (This is important because industry hides behind the fact that uranium and other elements do occur naturally at some level in groundwater in the area.) The quantities and extent of contamination are far above normal.

An investigative report done recently by the Arizona RepublicDaily Star found that the Arizona 1 mine, which lies about 20 miles north of the Grand Canyon’s rim, has been “largely left to regulate itself.” The ADEQ did their first inspection of the site in September 2010, roughly nine months after it had already re-opened. At that time, while they took a look at the ground level operations only, never inspecting the 1,252-foot-deep mine, they noted four “major violations.” These violations included a pipe sticking through a “lined” holding pond intended to prevent groundwater contamination, and the fact that no test to measure the permeability of the rock in the mine had been done at the site.

In addition to the ADEQ violations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued violations to Denison for failing to notify the agency that it planned to resume mining at Arizona 1, and for not securing federal approval before testing emissions or ventilating the mine.

And the environmental assessments and plans of operation for these mines -- the reports that warn of possible mining impacts and dictate how the mine will run -- were written in the 1980s and have never been updated. Given what we’ve learned about the environmental impact of the mines since they were last in operation, these are clearly inadequate. 

Kanab North Mine SiteAs for the BLM’s role in environmental protection in the region, they say that regular site inspections have been done and that they have found the non-operating mines in compliance with standard regulations. How is this reconciled with the USGS findings? A look at one mine in particular, the Kanab North, is helpful in sorting that out.

The BLM is hindered in protecting public health, in part, by its adherence to what appears to be an inadequate plan of operations at Kanab North -- a plan which, unbelievably enough, does not address ore waste pile removal or dust mitigation at the site.

The USGS report looking specifically at the Kanab North site paints a grim picture of what has happened in the decades the mine has been in calculated limbo. “Mined waste rock, uranium ore, pond sludge, and local wind- and water-dispersed fine particles on the un-reclaimed mine site (all of which contained high concentrations of uranium and other trace element constituents such as arsenic) were exposed to the ambient environment for about 20 years at the Kanab North partially mined site.”

The field study goes on to explain that, judging by soil samples, wind-blown contaminants made it beyond the fencing around the mine site, in concentrations 10 times higher than baseline measurements for the area. This particulate matter is worrisome for anything with lungs—like endangered California condors, bighorn sheep, and millions of tourists per year (4.5 million of them to the Grand Canyon in 2010). And anything with gills, including the endangered and/or threatened Humpback chub and Razorback sucker.

Perhaps more troubling than the ADEQ’s blind-eye, or ignorance, to the USGS’s findings, is what BLM appears to be sweeping under the rug. FOIA requests have yielded hand-written BLM inspection notes from the 1980s and 90s. One from 1982 notes that “many cubic yards of loose fill” were dumped in a drainage within 50 feet of Kanab Creek’s rim. It says that the contaminated fill is “slumping closer and closer” to the canyon’s rim and would likely be washed into the canyon during a storm event. In 1984, a flash flood roared through the area, carrying unknown quantities of high-grade uranium down Kanab Creek and into the national park. Although no remediation action was taken by the mining company after that time (it’s doubtful it was even requested) another BLM inspection report from 1991 says that the Kanab North site had been “reclaimed” and “looks pretty good.”

It’s clear there has to be a standardized approach to regulating the remaining mines near the Grand Canyon in order to protect public health. More comprehensive baseline studies of water and soil are needed to help identify mining-derived sources of contamination. This includes both testing more wells in the region to understand how the groundwater moves there, and sampling Colorado River (and its tributaries) sediment, which could identify the sources and mobility of uranium and other contaminants.

Operations should be suspended at the Arizona 1 mine until an EIS from this century is done. If Denison plans to re-activate the Kanab North, Pinenut or Canyon mines in the near future, new EISs must be done for those. If it plans not to mine them again immediately, then remediation plans that address the present contamination must be made, and that work must be done right away.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Image of Arizona 1 Kanab North mine site courtesy the USGS

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