Guest Editorial: Uranium Mining Near Grand Canyon – Not worth the risk or the cleanup costs

January 6, 2011

by Sandy Bahr
Chapter Director
Sierra Club - Grand Canyon Chapter

From its earliest days, the Sierra Club has been involved in protecting Grand Canyon. Sierra Club founder, John Muir, was a parks advocate and Grand Canyon was certainly on his list. Our members enjoy hiking, backpacking, wildlife and scenery viewing, and educational opportunities throughout the greater Grand Canyon area, and Grand Canyon National Park is recognized by us, as well as the nation, as a crown jewel in our national park system.

That, among many other reasons, is why we support protecting from uranium mining nearly one million acres of lands around Grand Canyon. The proposed uranium mines risk the important resources of the Grand Canyon, including the air, water, soil, wildlife, and the health of the people.

After uranium prices rose significantly three years ago, thousands of new uranium mining claims were filed near Grand Canyon and companies attempted to do mining exploration on these public lands with limited environmental reviews. Native American tribes, scientists, businesses, local governments and conservation groups expressed significant concerns about how uranium mining around Grand Canyon could harm wildlife, industrialize the landscape, and contaminate the groundwater that feeds the Grand Canyon’s seeps and springs – conservation groups successfully challenged the exploration activities and along with the tribes and local communities worked to find a way to protect these lands. In response to those concerns, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar temporarily placed one million acres of public lands surrounding Grand Canyon off limits to new mining claims, exploration, or to the development of existing, unpatented mining claims. That temporary order will expire in July.

To extend that protection, a draft Environmental Impact Statement will be issued in early 2011 that will look at various alternatives for protecting the land for 20 years, the maximum amount of time allowed for an administrative withdrawal. There will be opportunities for all who care about the Park and the surrounding lands to take action to protect it.

Right now, however, there is a more immediate threat. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality has done an about-face regarding groundwater protection permits for several proposed mines in the region and is issuing and has issued general, and less protective, permits for at least four mines. These permits require no site-specific hydrogeologic information and no groundwater monitoring. They also require no bonding, although some include voluntary and limited bonding. Given the proximity of these mines to Grand Canyon National Park and the severity of the threat of groundwater pollution presented by uranium mining in such close proximity to the Colorado River, permitting of uranium mines is just too risky and should not proceed.

And then there is the dust. Dust associated with uranium mining has been found to carry arsenic, lead, copper, cadmium, nickel, strontium, and cobalt, as well as uranium. Rock piles on abandoned mine sites regularly release very small dust particles, small enough to pass through the lungs and into the blood stream. A 2010 U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) report examining the impacts of uranium mining on Grand Canyon found contamination around the closed and reclaimed Pigeon and Hermit mines, north of the Grand Canyon; there were elevated levels of uranium in soils near roads that likely originated from ore trucks. Trucks hauling this radioactive ore will pass through many communities and should not leave the mine site without being completely sealed. The proposed air quality permits for these mines do not require that, however, and instead merely require the trucks to be tarped.

Uranium mining has left a legacy of pollution in the Southwest. Hundreds of abandoned uranium mines dot the lands of the Navajo Nation. The Orphan Mine in Grand Canyon National Park has surface and groundwater contamination associated with it. Horn Creek, a stream that feeds the Colorado River, has high levels of radiation – hikers are warned not to drink its water. The Atlas Uranium Mine near Moab, Utah, is leaching radioactive waste into the Colorado River – this will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up. (Mining companies won’t pick up the tab, of course – taxpayers will.)

The 2010 USGS report concluded that: “Uranium mining within the watershed may increase the amount of radioactive materials and heavy metals in the surface water and groundwater flowing into Grand Canyon National Park and the Colorado River, and deep mining activities may increase mobilization of uranium through the rock strata into the aquifers. In addition, waste rock and ore from mined areas may be transported away from the mines by wind and runoff.” It found radiation levels and toxic substances were consistently higher on mined sites compared to unmined sites north of Grand Canyon; it also found uranium concentrations exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drinking-water standards in 15 springs and five wells related to past mining.

They say the mining is all different today, but the methods are much the same and at least some of the mining companies have a history of worker safety and environmental citations. As former Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Steve Martin said:

“There should be some places that you just do not mine. Uranium is a special concern because it is both a toxic heavy metal and a source of radiation. I worry about uranium escaping into the local water, and about its effect on fish in the Colorado River at the bottom of the gorge, and on the bald eagles, California condors and bighorn sheep that depend on the Canyon’s seeps and springs. More than a third of the canyon’s species would be affected if water quality suffered.”

It is just not worth the risk.