About the SA Blog Network

Plugged In

Plugged In

More than wires - exploring the connections between energy, environment, and our lives
Plugged In HomeAboutContact

No New Uranium Mines Near Grand Canyon

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

By Melissa C. Lott and Robynne Boyd

The arm wrestling match over job creation and environmental conservation continues.

One example is the recent announcement regarding new uranium mining near the world’s most famous gorge. According to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the U.S. federal government will implement a 20-year ban on new mining claims in areas surrounding the Grand Canyon. In his announcement, Salazar explained that the Grand Canyon’s “priceless landscape” deserved protection from uranium mining, to the applause of environmental groups and eco-tourists.

The embargo extends a 2009 interim ban by the Interior Department that’s almost expired.

“A withdrawal is the right approach for this priceless American landscape,” said Salazar. “People from all over the country and around the world come to visit the Grand Canyon. Numerous American Indian tribes regard this magnificent icon as a sacred place and millions of people in the Colorado River Basin depend on the river for drinking water, irrigation, industrial and environmental use.”

The lands are located in Mohave and Coconino Counties of Northern Arizona and encompass one million acres. The area is already home to about 3,000 mining claims, which will not be impacted by this new ban.

While the Canyon’s fragile ecosystem and $3.5 billion tourist industry are now more secure under the moratorium, opposition to the ban, including Arizona Senator John McCain, lament its impact on uranium production and in turn, job creation. In a state suffering from an 8.7% unemployment rate (the nation’s average is 8.5%), the land surrounding the Grand Canyon represents a rich potential job resource.  All told, this area holds about 40 percent of the country’s uranium, valued to be in the billions of dollars.

Uranium, the primary fuel source for nuclear power plants, could be used to produce fuel for the nation’s more than 100 gigawatt nuclear power plant fleet.

But, to Taylor McKinnon, the public lands campaign director at the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity “…the real economic engine in northern Arizona is not uranium mining. It’s tourism… to jeopardize our economic engine with more toxic uranium is unacceptable.”

Questions exist about the validity of possible uranium contamination to the environment, and more specifically the Colorado River, underscoring the difficult nature of the ensuring both environmental protection and employment. But, for now, caution is the name of the game – and the ban on mining near the world’s most famous gorge will stay in effect.

Photo Credit:

1. Photo of Mohave Point in Grand Canyon by Tony Wasserman and used under this Creative Commons License.

Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 10 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. iluvdubya 10:22 am 01/23/2012

    Great Job Salazar! I’m sure those Kazakhstani workers will be much more conscious of environmental issues than Americans. You just dodged a bullet there, mother earth!

    Link to this
  2. 2. MoEnergySci 10:54 am 01/23/2012

    So – correct me if I’m wrong @iluvdubya, but the US has a lot of uranium reserves. And, not all of them are near a precious natural resources that I hope to take my children to later in life. It seems like strategically placing these types of mines as to minimize their potential impact later is a good decision.

    Link to this
  3. 3. jamesonJones22 2:24 pm 01/23/2012

    @MoEnergySci. Yes, the US has a lot of uranium reserves, however those reserves may not be as economically viable or have as good of uranium grades as the proposed mine sites near the Grand Canyon. “Strategically placing” these types of mines is very difficult due to the overwhelming sense of NIMBY-ism that persists in America today. I would think that the Grand Canyon would have been a perfect place to put a mine site because it already looks like a giant open pit mine. Of course, proper regulatory oversight would be needed to ensure that the safety and health of the workers and community are looked after during and after mining.
    The statement by Mr. McKinnon is pure fear mongering, “to jeopardize our economic engine with more toxic uranium is unacceptable.” i would hope that SciAm would see it as such and help to prevent its proliferation.

    Link to this
  4. 4. wanakah 6:14 pm 01/23/2012

    Fear mongering? Read on…

    Summary of USGS Findings of Contamination Related to Past Uranium Mining Near and Within Grand Canyon National Park

    Alpine, Andrea E., ed., 2010, Hydrological, geological, and biological site characterization of breccia pipe uranium deposits in northern Arizona: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2010–5025, 353 p., 1 pl., scale 1:375,000.

    In the above-linked study, the USGS found elevated radioactivity at every mining site they visited relative to a nearby un-mined watershed with similar geology. Groundwater samples from many of those mines also exhibited uranium concentrations above EPA standards, whereas the natural background for dissolved uranium in Grand Canyon’s watershed is far below EPA standards. The USGS consistently found elevated radioactivity and uranium where mining had occurred in the past. The study also found “fifteen springs and 5 wells in the region contain concentrations of dissolved uranium that exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maximum contaminant level for drinking water and are related to mining processes.” Following are quotes pulled from that study demonstrating pollution at several mines in the region.

    1. The Orphan Mine

    “Uranium concentrations in samples from Salt Creek Spring (average, 30.6 µg/L) exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) PMCL of 30 µg/L (fig. 9). One sample from Horn Creek had a concentration only slightly lower than the PMCL (29.2 µg/L). Previous studies have found high gross-alpha-particle activity in samples from Salt Creek Spring and Horn Creek (Monroe and others, 2005; Bills and others, 2007). An abandoned uranium and copper mine (Orphan Lode Mine) in the vicinity of Salt Creek and Horn Creek is the likely source of this high activity (plate 1) (Monroe and others, 2005; Grand Canyon National Park, 2006; Bills and others, 2007).” (Hydrology chapter at 156).

    “Horn Creek and Horn Spring were sampled three times in 1994−95; concentrations ranged from 18.9 to 67.8 µg/L (appendix 4). The Horn Up site was sampled four times in June and July 2002; concentrations ranged from 312 to 400 µg/L (appendix 4). Two samples from the Horn West site, both collected in July 2002, had uranium concentrations of 135 and 202 µg/L. (Id. at 181.)

    “Horn Creek Spring is located in the same drainage and downgradient from the Orphan Mine. Several investigators have linked the elevated dissolved uranium in Horn Creek with mining activity in the area (Monroe and others 2004; Grand Canyon National Park, 2006; and Bills and others, 2007). (Id. at 184.)

    2. The Canyon Mine

    “A small number of water samples from wells also had elevated uranium concentrations. The highest is from the Canyon Mine Well (appendix 4, figs. 9B, 12, 14, table 8). Eleven samples reported from this well had concentrations ranging from 4.1 µg/L in 1987 to 309 µg/L in 1989.”

    3. The Hermit Mine

    “Water samples collected in the Hermit Mine shaft for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality in 1988 and 1989 range from 20 to 42 µg/L (Energy Fuels Nuclear,1995b)… The Hermit Mine sump concentrations ranged from 3,310 to 36,600 µg/L (the highest reported value of any sample type in this study) in 1989−90 (figs. 9A,13). These high concentration mine shaft and sump waters may be sources of dissolved uranium for nearby sites if mine water is capable of entering the regional groundwater flow system.” (Id. at 184.)

    4. The Pigeon Mine

    “The Pigeon Mine sump had a single reported value of 170 µg/L in 1986.” (Id. at 184.)

    5. The Kanab North Mine

    “Mined waste rock, uranium ore, pond sludge, and local wind- and water-dispersed fine particles on the unreclaimed 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. Offsite, only one soil sample approximated background uranium concentrations, suggesting that dispersion extends beyond the limit of sampling, about 420 feet. Soil samples (n=20) collected within about 420 feet outside of the fenced mine site had an average uranium concentration of 27.8 parts per million (more than 10 times background concentration) and arsenic concentration of 12 parts per million. Wind appears to be the dominant process dispersing material offsite.” (Effects chapter at 7.)

    6. All sites

    In total, the report found a total of 41 water samples exceeding EPA water quality standards.

    “Fifteen springs and 5 wells in the region contain concentrations of dissolved uranium that exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maximum contaminant level for drinking water and are related to mining processes.” (Hydrology chapter at 194).

    “Elevated radioactivity is evident at all sites (except the Jumpup Canyon background area). The highest microR measurements were found at the Kanab North Mine (a partially mined site with abundant mined waste rock at the surface inside a fenced site perimeter), followed by the Pigeon site and then the Hack Mine complex (within a half mile downstream of Hack 1 Mine). Much lower microR measurements were recorded at the Hermit site. Very little radiation above background concentrations was found at the unmined Kanab South site, except at a weakly uraniferous limonite-stained outcrop.

    Radioactivity rapidly decreases within 400 feet outside of the fenced area of the Kanab North site. Similarly, radioactivity notably decreased within a few feet of anomalous point sources (ore and waste-rock fragments) at reclaimed Pigeon, and Hack 1, 2, and 3 sites.” (Effects chapter at 8).

    Link to this
  5. 5. dwbd 7:48 pm 01/23/2012

    Hey wanakah why don’t you check the radioisotope levels from giant Coal Mine Waste heaps and deadly, toxic smokestacks in the same region and from NG Fracking Waste-water, which the EPA refuses to regulate or monitor:

    The REAL STORY on potential Uranium Mining in the area, no hype, no BS:

    Link to this
  6. 6. jamesonJones22 11:54 am 01/24/2012

    OH NO! Sump water in the mine shaft has been found to have high levels of uranium!
    This is fear mongering. These tests are from the 80′s at abandoned mine sites. The federal and state regulators are much more skilled at monitoring and assessing the operations at these type of mines now than they were in the era from the 50′s to the 70′s. There are newer technologies (ion exchange) to allow mines to keep their process water below EPA drinking water standards.
    In short i will sum up my philosophy. The EPA, NRC, and state & local governments are orders of magnitude better at assessing and monitoring mining and chemical processes now than they were in the 70′s and 80′s. I trust my state regulators to perform due diligence to analyze and evaluate potential mining operations. I trust my state regulators more than i would trust someone 2,000 miles away.

    Link to this
  7. 7. wanakah 6:09 pm 01/24/2012

    “I trust my state regulators to perform due diligence to analyze and evaluate potential mining operations. I trust my state regulators more than i would trust someone 2,000 miles away.”

    Well, James, you are entitled to your opinion. As to trusting your state regulators to due diligence, again, keep reading…

    Mining on the honor system

    CYNDY COLE Sun Staff Reporter | Posted: Sunday, January 16, 2011 5:25 am |

    Global demand for nuclear fuel touched down on the Colorado Plateau last winter, restarting an industry that had been on hold for two decades.

    International mining company Denison Mines began hauling ore out of the first and only uranium mine to reopen so far, 35 miles southwest of Fredonia, in December 2009.

    The ore is being trucked from the mine north of the Grand Canyon to southeastern Utah, where Denison owns and operates one of the nation’s few uranium mills.

    Environmental groups are countering with objections, lawsuits and legislation to put large chunks of public lands off limits to new mining — saying the industry will leave environmental contamination in soil and water, and possible health risks.

    But even with this higher profile, the first reopened mine, called Arizona 1, has been largely left to regulate itself.

    State environmental inspectors didn’t arrive for a first inspection at the mine until it had already been open for about nine months.

    The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) had unfilled requests for documents and inspections by engineers that it sought before the mine opened.
    Mine operators set to work without answering some of these requests.

    The first inspection at the mine came in September, and ADEQ inspected at the ground level only, not traveling into the mine that reaches more than 1,252 feet below. Nevertheless, the inspection yielded what ADEQ deemed four “major violations.”

    – There were no pumps in the mine to eliminate any water there.
    – A test measuring the permeability of the rock in the mine hadn’t been done.
    – A pipe was sticking through a lined pond that is intended to prevent groundwater contamination from ore or water pumped out of the mine.
    – Plans for the mine didn’t match what inspectors found when they visited, they wrote.

    ADEQ inspectors reported other problems, too. One of two linings of the pond — which is a key new environmental precaution intended to protect groundwater — was so worn or old that ADEQ found that “many patches over patches were observed” and “the number of patches on the liner is excessive,” and “patches lifting up on ends were observed all over the impoundment.”

    Rocks were being used to weigh down the liner’s patches, ADEQ photos and notes show.

    ADEQ had been asking for new drawings of the mine’s surface operations since October 2009, and it had requested that the pond’s liner be certified as free of defects by an engineer in June of 2009.

    The mine’s operator didn’t provide the drawings or get the pond liner inspected before the mine opened, ADEQ documents show.

    ADEQ asked Denison for corrections by letter in November 2010, almost a year after the mine had opened.
    ADEQ requires businesses to use the “best available demonstrated control technology” to prevent water pollution at these mines before awarding what it calls an aquifer protection permit needed to open a mine, said Carrolette Winstead, who oversees such permits.

    This mine is operating under a water permit issued in 1994.

    The ADEQ inspectors’ reports repeat the words, “according to mine personnel …” in describing what they know, not first-hand inspections or measurements.

    Denison and contractors are told to take measurements to identify non-radioactive rock (used to fill in the mine later) versus uranium ore, and segregate these items properly for storage or hauling, depending on what it contains.

    Miners or contractors are also supposed to keep logs of samples they’ve taken regarding what’s in any water pumped from the mine, for reporting to ADEQ.
    The Arizona Radiation Regulatory Agency, which is tasked with management of most things radioactive in Arizona, used to take water and air samples at these mining sites.

    That testing ended some years ago when the Southwest’s uranium mines closed, the agency’s director said.
    Likewise, ADEQ’s staff is down by about 20 percent due to state budget cuts.

    “ADEQ is neither equipped nor inclined to regulate these mines in a way that even remotely ensures against irretrievable harm to the environment,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Aquifer contamination, if it were to happen, would be permanent and impossible to clean up — and neither the feds, nor the state nor the mining companies can guarantee that won’t happen.”

    In the same month ADEQ inspectors arrived, federal inspectors concerned with worker safety cited Denison and contractors with air quality violations, failure to properly label power switches, equipment safety violations, lack of firefighting equipment inspections, and with another violation that is still being contested.

    One contractor was injured at the mine site in 2009.
    In all, the Mine Safety and Health Administration found 38 possible mine safety violations at the Arizona 1 Mine in 2010, many of which Denison is contesting.
    Denison and contractors were fined $5,424 for safety violations in 2010.

    They have recently paid $962 of those fines.

    Read more:

    Link to this
  8. 8. dvgdy 11:56 pm 01/24/2012

    First off it’s sad when a journal like SA gets the basic facts wrong. DOE estmates show that the entire state of Arizona has about 18% of the nations Uranium Reserves. It is impossible for a 40 square mile section of the state to hold 40% of the nations uranium reserves. This is just another industry lie. Shame for passing it on.

    Second – Uranium mining may have the worst pollution record of any industry in the US. In the western US, it has NEVER been done without causing serious pollution problems. The Navajo nation is now the largest superfund site in the US as a result of uranium mining. In the area of the Grand Canyon, as has been noted above, it has PERMANENTLY polluted streams and springs that feed into the Colorado River, which provides drinking water to 25 million people. It is insane to think that it would be a good idea to permit this activity adjacent to one of the nation’s greatest natural treasures and to the drinking water supply for much of the region.

    Third the article link posted above that tried to make the issue one of actually digging in the Grand Canyon is idiotic. That has never been the issue. The issue is whether hundreds of heavy ore trucks running on dirt roads a few miles from the Canyon edge is going to cause particulate pollution that will destroy air quality in the park (it will); and whether the noise from having diesel engines and heavy industrial activity less than a mile from visitor centers on the South Rim will affect the natural quiet of the area and turn off tourists (it will), and finally whether the toxic waste produced by mining that has caused the pollution of aquifers and streams throughout the west should be permitted in the watershed that feeds directly into the Grand Canyon and Colorado River.

    Fourth – mining regulators have never in the past shown any ability in any state or at the federal level to ensure that Uranium mining operations are conducted in a manner that eliminates threats to human health or water supplies. This is because they don’t have the legal tools, the staffing, the expertise, or often the inclination. Einstein once said that the definition of insanit is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different outcome. Einstein would say that trusting regulators to ensure that uranium mining can be done safely this time is insane.

    Finally, all of the companies proposing to mine in this area are foreign owned companies. If we were stupid enough to do this, the profits would be made by foreigners who would either keep the uranium for their countries or sell it to the highest international bidders. They would pay no royalties to the US for uranium mined from our public lands -and it would not reduce US reliance on foreign energy supplies at all.

    Link to this
  9. 9. dwbd 12:49 am 01/25/2012

    “…Uranium mining may have the worst pollution record of any industry in the US…”

    An idiotic statement. Have you ever even taken a one second look at Coal mining – the replacement for Uranium mining? No you haven’t. Do you have any knowledge whatsoever about radioisotopes, mining wastes, coal waste? No you don’t. So why don’t you learn a little bit about a subject before you beak off stupidly?

    Tell the natives all the way into Canada who have been banned from eating fish contaminated with Mercury from giant Coal Power plants in the same area, how terrible the trivial amounts of radioisotope emissions from the Uranium mine waste is? Learn a little bit about Coal vs Uranium – Coal releases 100X the radiation to the environment and Shale Gas at least as much:

    And maybe you would be wise to learn that 90% of the uranium energy cost will generate US jobs, whereas YOUR alternative Natural Gas will result in 80% job export to LNG suppliers from mostly the Middle East, after your INCREDIBLE Radioactive Emitting Shale Gas (& methane emitting) craps out.

    Oh by the way, take a look what one small US town has to deal from due to YOUR giant Coal Waste heaps, tell us how wonderful those giant Coal Power plants and Mines in the same region are:

    Don’t want to talk about that do you?

    Link to this
  10. 10. wanakah 1:23 am 01/25/2012

    One more time, James:

    “ADEQ is neither equipped nor inclined to regulate these mines in a way that even remotely ensures against irretrievable harm to the environment,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Aquifer contamination, if it were to happen, would be permanent and impossible to clean up — and neither the feds, nor the state nor the mining companies can guarantee that won’t happen.”

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article