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Do uranium mines belong near Grand Canyon?

Mining companies stake claims on federal land adjoining the park, while opponents say drinking water will be at risk.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 19, 2008

Melanie Stetson Freeman – Staff/File

Melanie Stetson Freeman – Staff/File

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On a ragged outcrop just a short walk from a Grand Canyon overlook where millions of visitors annually come to gawk at one of the world’s most stunning vistas sits the old Orphan uranium mine. Soil radiation levels around it are 450 times higher than normal. It’s encircled by a protective fence.

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A sign warns: “Remain behind fence – environmental evaluation in progress.” In the canyon hundreds of feet below, another sign by gurgling Horn Creek instructs thirsty hikers not to drink its radioactive water.

Even so, Horn Creek eventually splashes its way to the canyon bottom and into the Colorado River, a vital water source for 25 million people from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to San Diego. In that mighty river, the Orphan’s radioactive dribble is diluted to insignificance.

But what if a dozen or even scores of new uranium mines were leaching uranium radioisotopes into this critical water source? That is what Arizona’s governor, water authorities in two states, scientists, environmentalists, and Congress are all worried about. Should they be?

Everybody from mining-industry officials to environmentalists agrees that the Orphan mine is a poster child for the bad old days of uranium mining going back to the 1950s. Today’s regulations and newer mining techniques make such pollution far less likely, industry officials say, though environmentalists vehemently disagree. The question remains: Is Orphan only a vision of the past – or is it a vision of the future, too?

The US Southwest may be about to find out. Driven by soaring uranium prices and fresh interest in nuclear power, mining companies have staked more than 10,600 exploratory mineral claims – most of them smaller than five acres – spread across 1 million acres of federal land adjacent to the Colorado River and Grand Canyon National Park, a federal official told Congress in June. Most are uranium claims, though some may be for other metals, observers say.

Such numbers and testimony about pollution have begun to move Congress. Following congressional hearings, the House Natural Resources Committee in late June declared an emergency withdrawal of 1 million acres from any mining claims. The federal land in question is on the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon, just outside the national park, through which the Colorado River flows.

While a federal lawsuit and injunction have temporarily stalled uranium development in the national forest on the south rim, Congress’s action is being resisted by the Bush administration on the north rim.

There, lands controlled by the Bureau of Land Management are unaffected by the lawsuit to the south and exploration claims are still being processed routinely.